Census to Start Small on Handheld Rollout

In midst of $600M project, agency will deploy first 1,400 devices in May

The U.S. Census Bureau’s planned $600 million rollout of handheld computers is scheduled to start in May, when the agency expects to deploy 1,400 devices for use in updating addresses in preparation for the 2010 census.

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A Census Bureau spokesman and officials at the project’s prime contractor, Harris Corp., said last week that the handheld deployment, which was announced last April, is moving forward on schedule. The agency will eventually roll out 500,000 devices.

Harris demonstrated the handhelds to 50 Census Bureau officials on Dec. 14, transmitting data over a Sprint wireless network, said Mike Murray, vice president of census programs at the vendor’s government communications systems division. Murray said the initial 1,400 handhelds will be used in a dress rehearsal of address updates in two test markets during May and June.

As the rollout progresses, the devices will be used to update addresses nationwide in 2009 and will then be used in 2010 to input information during a canvass of homes whose residents fail to submit paper census surveys, according to Murray. In all, census takers equipped with the handhelds might visit as many as 50 million homes, he said.

Census Bureau officials have been requesting changes in the functionality of the handhelds “almost daily,” Murray said. For example, the plans for the Field Data Collection Automation project originally called for the use of fingerprint authentication only. But a second level of end-user authentication — passwords — has since been added.

The handhelds will run Windows Mobile 5.0 on hardware made by High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan. The devices are based on consumer technology that has been customized and made semirugged. They include a 10-hour battery and a cellular data radio. A phone line port is also being built in for backup purposes if wireless connections aren’t available, and the handhelds will be equipped with GPS mapping information to help census takers find addresses.

Census Bureau officials have said the use of the handhelds will result in greater efficiency for field workers who traditionally have carried paper address lists. The officials said they also expect the project to save the government millions of dollars by shortening the time it takes workers to gather data, improving the information’s accuracy and reducing the need to process paper census forms.

The Census Bureau spokesman declined to comment in detail about the handheld project. He also wouldn’t address questions about potential funding issues, beyond referring back to congressional testimony last July in which Census Bureau Director Louis Kincannon said that recent legislative actions were forcing the agency “to question key operational and design considerations” for projects such as the handheld rollout.

In July, the U.S. House and Senate both passed proposed fiscal 2007 budgets that reduced the White House’s funding request for the Census Bureau. But none of the reductions have taken effect because Congress later approved a continuing resolution that keeps the federal budget at the same level it was at during fiscal 2006, at least through Feb. 15.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has questioned the need for the handheld program and criticized the Census Bureau for not putting census surveys online. “It’s ludicrous not to move the census online,” said John Hart, a spokesman for Coburn. “Millions of people already file their taxes online.”

But Murray said many Americans still lack Internet access, making it important for the Census Bureau to continue visits by census takers — and the handheld project.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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