Q&A: Census Bureau exec describes handheld plan for 2010

The agency has embarked on a $600M plan to automate census data collection

The U.S. Census Bureau signed a contract this week with Harris Corp. for a $600 million project to automate data collection in the 2010 census (see "Census Bureau to deploy a half-million wireless handhelds"). About 500,000 customized pocket-size computers from High Tech Computer Corp. in Taiwan will be deployed to census takers who go door to door. Edwin B. Wagner Jr., project manager for the field data collection automation contract at the Census Bureau, talked to Computerworld today about the effort. Excerpts from that interview follow:

Obviously, handhelds have saved time and improved accuracy for many field forces in recent years. Have you quantified what you expect to save in this project? I can’t say the project will save exactly x millions of dollars, but introducing this helps us with data collection. In the 2000 census, we had somewhere in the neighborhood of 35 million nonresponding households, where we didn’t receive their census forms by mail. That meant taking out paper questionnaires, and then taking data off the questionnaires later in a separate step. And millions of returns were mailed back to us after workers started making house calls. So, this new automation allows us to update census enumerators with new mail returns via wireless before the worker reaches the house. And, we don’t have to process the paper. We will save millions of dollars, no doubt.

On what base? In 2000, we spent $6 billion on the census, for everything, not just data collection. In 2010, it’s expected to be $11 billion for the entire 10-year cycle.

Why such a large number of handhelds, half a million? Well, we have millions of households to visit, but we also can’t wait for the data under legal mandates -- so we put a lot of people on the streets. The census is always held on April 1, by law, and must be finished by Dec. 31 of that year. And then, one year later, on April 1, 2011, we’re required to deliver all the information to the states for use in redistricting. The process can’t wait.

Are the census takers going to use the devices to ask a ton of questions? If so, how might people react to a census taker using a machine? Did you consider how intrusive it might feel to them? It’s a short-form questionnaire, only seven questions. We’re not really worried about intrusiveness. It’s not really any different than holding paper in that sense. People are getting used to it with meter readers using mobile technology and the UPS guy making deliveries. Nothing to my knowledge in our 2004 and 2006 field tests with handhelds shows a problem. We’ve tested with 200,000 actual homes in Austin, Texas, two counties in southern Georgia and part of New York City.

Regarding the actual hardware, Harris is relying on High Tech Computer Corp. for customization of its handhelds running Windows Mobile 5.0. How important was it to the Census Bureau to use Windows Mobile over other operating systems? Windows Mobile was not a priority to us. It didn’t matter to us if it was Windows Mobile 5.0 or something else. We put out a request for proposals and listed our functional requirements and said, "Here’s what we need," so it was up to industry to figure out the right solution. Harris won and will use Windows Mobile. Our requirements get into whether it performs the functions we need and meets requirements for usability, reliability, user-friendliness and more.

So how did that choice come about? We had very many priorities to consider. We wanted the solution to meet our needs, so we went through a technology evaluation, and Harris was the winner. All the vendors submitting proposals developed a prototype for canvassing that would include updating an address list. The demonstrations of the prototypes were in January, and included an application for address updates on a device, as well as a time-and-expense form on the handheld as well as an operation-control system and use of maps on the handheld. Harris used an integrated prototype based on HTC hardware, and we’ll be working with them to tweak those devices.

One industry analyst was surprised to hear that you won’t be supporting voice communications, even though the data will transmit over a private Sprint Nextel Corp. cellular network. With canvassing going on in all kinds of neighborhoods, wouldn’t it be safer to have voice? Voice is something we are still looking at, and we haven’t dismissed it entirely. Adding voice would be a change from the current concept. There are issues in terms of making sure voice is effectively controlled over half a million users because of costs. If we did it, it would have to be very controlled, perhaps allowing enumerators to call their crew leaders only.

And you have the cellular data radio in the device as well as a telephone line port as backup? In some neighborhoods, there might not be cellular service. If the worker is in cellular coverage, they could automatically transmit, boom! If not, the worker transmits at home that night over the wire.

You’ve also taken big steps for security, following federal mandates? Yes, the data is encrypted in the device and sent over the air in encrypted form.

Do many other countries have census collections via handhelds? Many countries do not yet, and a lot of people from other countries are looking to us for what we’re doing. We’re getting a visit next week from a census official from Australia. We think this is a very good thing to do in terms of expanding the use of technology. This is exciting to us. It brings census-taking to a whole new realm.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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