Census Counts Itself As Big Handheld User

Feds will roll out 500,000 devices at a cost of $600M

Federal census takers will use wireless handheld computers instead of pens and paper when they next hit the streets in 2010, provided that a $600 million project designed to automate the collection of census data goes as planned.

The U.S. Census Bureau last week officially signed a deal to buy about 500,000 handhelds and related technology from a team of vendors led by Harris Corp. The five-year contract awarded to Harris and its partners covers all aspects of the Field Data Collection Automation Project, according to Census Bureau officials.

Despite the project's steep cost, the use of handhelds should save the government "millions of dollars" by reducing the time it takes census workers to gather data, improving the information's accuracy and minimizing the need to process paper census forms, said Edwin Wagner Jr., the Census Bureau's project manager.

The pocket-size handhelds will run Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Mobile 5.0 operating system and be made by High Tech Computer Corp., a hardware vendor in Taiwan, said Bruce Buckley, director of census-related business development at Harris.

The devices, which are still under development, will be based on consumer-grade handheld technology that has been customized and made semirugged, Buckley said. For example, the handhelds are designed to have a 10-hour battery life so census staffers can work all day, he said.

The devices will also include a cellular data radio for sending encrypted information to Census Bureau offices over a dedicated Sprint Nextel Corp. network. A traditional phone-line connection port will be custom-installed for backup purposes, Buckley said.

Wagner said Census Bureau officials didn't specify the use of Windows Mobile 5.0. The bureau's request for proposals listed general functional requirements, including usability and reliability levels, instead of setting any technology mandates. "It didn't matter to us if it was Windows Mobile 5.0 or something else," Wagner said. "It was up to [the vendors] to figure out the right solution."

The team led by Harris was chosen after a demonstration of handheld prototypes by all the bidders in January, he added. The prototypes had to include mapping support, an application for updating the addresses of residents, and a time-and-expense form for use by census workers.

Buckley said Harris chose Windows Mobile 5.0 for the handhelds primarily because the Microsoft operating system can run customized versions of off-the-shelf applications that the Melbourne, Fla.-based systems integrator has experience with. That includes software for security and wireless data synchronization.

All data collected by census takers will be transmitted over the Sprint Nextel network immediately or at set intervals, according to Buckley. If workers fail to send data as scheduled, the handhelds will do so on their own, he said. In addition, the Census Bureau will be able to send information to workers, such as advisories notifying them that residents on their routes have already filed paper-based census surveys and can be skipped.

Buckley said there will be no keyboard on the handhelds; instead, data will be input primarily by tapping a stylus on a color screen. The handhelds also aren't expected to have voice capabilities, a decision made to comply with government security requirements and keep costs low, he said.

However, Wagner said voice support might be added if its use could be controlled. "We haven't dismissed it entirely," he said, noting that perhaps census takers could be allowed to talk via the handhelds to their crew leaders only.

The contract with Harris also covers the IT infrastructure, hardware and software needed to support the handhelds at about 455 local Census Bureau offices. Dell Inc. will supply PCs and servers, and Oracle Corp. will provide software for integrating data from the handhelds with information in back-end systems.

Other vendors involved in the project include Accenture Ltd., Unisys Corp. and Headstrong Corp., an IT consulting and systems engineering firm in Fairfax, Va. Craig Mathias, an analyst at Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., said he isn't aware of any deployments of wireless handhelds that are larger than the one planned by the Census Bureau.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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