Census Bureau Takes Stock of Its Handhelds

Agency starts to test new devices to gauge usability

About 1,400 U.S. Census Bureau workers carrying wireless handhelds began fanning out across Fayetteville, N.C., and Stockton, Calif., last week in a dress rehearsal to see how the devices will be used during the 2010 census.

Initially, the workers equipped with the handhelds are verifying street addresses and adding or deleting the locations of homes that have been built or removed since the previous census. During the actual census, workers will also use the devices to enter answers to questions during in-person visits to the homes of residents who havent sent in written questionnaires.

The handhelds are equipped with GPS mapping technology and biometric security features, and they can transmit information to central databases via wireless connections. Eventually, 500,000 census takers are expected to use the devices, said Mike Murray, vice president of the census program at Harris Corp., the lead systems integrator on the project.

Census Bureau workers will use the handhelds to verify street addresses and enter the locations of houses on GPS-generated maps.

Census Bureau workers will use the handhelds to verify street addresses and enter the locations of houses on GPS-generated maps.The Census Bureau signed a contract for the project with a team of vendors led by Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris last spring. The agency plans to spend $600 million on the handhelds and related technology over the next five years as part of the rollout, which will involve 13 data centers and nearly 500 field offices.

The seven-week rehearsal will give officials a chance to evaluate the usability of the handhelds by a diverse workforce. When youre hiring 500,000 people so quickly, you cant be too picky [about] whom youre hiring, and theyll have all kinds of technology backgrounds, Murray said.

In addition, Harris will be able to see if its field office servers are sized properly to handle the data sent to them from the handhelds, which are being custom-built for the Census Bureau by High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan.

The Census Bureau had planned to control access to the handhelds through the use of both passwords and fingerprint scans. But it decided to rely only on the scans in order to simplify the use of the devices, Murray said. He added that the biometric approach is still very secure on its own.

Bob Egan, an analyst at TowerGroup in Needham, Mass., said fingerprint scans or other biometric checks are increasingly being adopted on handheld deployments involving industrial applications or other heavy-duty uses.

The bad news is that a lot of biometric devices still have a lot of issues, Egan said. That can result in both false positives and negatives, he added. For example, users sometimes are blocked from accessing their devices because of moisture on their fingers.

Another potential technical issue involves the GPS antenna chip built into the handhelds. Murray said the chip was chosen to enable the devices to find GPS satellites on cloudy days or from inside doorways as workers record information from residents.

A common problem with some older GPS devices is that theyre unable to find locations in overcast conditions. But Harris checked the Census Bureau handhelds in all different environments and never had a problem with cloudy days, Murray said. We hope we checked everything. At least, thats the goal.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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