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A 21st-century head count

by fcw Wednesday, Aug. 01, 2007 at 1:42 PM

The Census Bureau prepares to conduct a decennial census like no other it has performed in its 220-year history

BY Wade-Hahn Chan

Published on July 23, 2007

Census Bureau officials sounded optimistic and relieved as they finished updating local census addresses in June during a final dress rehearsal for the 2010 census. They were not immune to dress rehearsal jitters while they used handheld wireless computers to update census address lists. But Census field workers who rehearsed with the new mobile computing devices (MCDs) said the devices performed well, with only minor glitches.

Before the dress rehearsal began, many officials had worried about whether the MCDs would work at all. The bureau had disappointing failures when it tested handheld computers in 2004 and 2006, and auditors from the Government Accountability Office warned that if the new devices failed during the final dress rehearsal, the bureau would be forced to go back to using paper address lists, maps and questionnaires for the 2010 census. However, the bureau’s data collection managers said they never had a Plan B that would take them back to the old way of doing the census.

“We have no plans for going back to paper, and we don’t see going back to paper as a viable option,” said Ed Wagner, project manager at the Census Field Data Collection Automation Division. He is a veteran of three decennial censuses.

Census officials decided they had to use computers to update local addresses because the older manual methods produced highly inaccurate results. According to bureau statistics, the 2000 census yielded nearly 10.6 million duplicate, missing, improperly deleted and incorrectly located addresses. GAO attributed those problems to poor-quality data in the Master Address File, which is the central database of census information.

To fix the problems, Census officials decided to stop using paper. At that point, the bureau bought laptop PCs, personal digital assistants and address-matching software and conducted research on locating hard-to-find residents.

Field tested

The dress rehearsal using the new MCDs was Nairobi Washington’s first experience as a field enumerator — the term Census uses for the thousands of census-takers it hires every 10 years. Washington started as a field enumerator in the bureau’s Fayetteville, N.C., office, one of two locations for the final dress rehearsal. The other location was San Joaquin County, Calif.

Census supervisors selected the 33-year-old Virginia native to be a crew leader. In that position, Washington was responsible for training 18 other field enumerators to use the MCDs. She said the devices were easy to use, and most people liked them.

Census chose Fayetteville as a dress rehearsal site because it has two military bases: the Army’s Fort Bragg and Pope Air Force Base. Fort Bragg is gaining employees from other Army sites that were affected by recent base realignments and closures. Because of those shifts, new housing developments are popping up throughout the city, and bureau officials decided that Fayetteville was an ideal spot for a final census dress rehearsal.

Valencia Applewhite, manager of the bureau’s Fayetteville office, agreed that the wireless MCDs performed well, despite the patchwork of wireless coverage zones they encountered and some bad weather, including a hailstorm. Applewhite, a retired Pentagon employee who has a data communications background, said she was attracted to working on the 2010 census when she learned it would involve the use of Global Positioning System devices. Each MCD has a slot for a GPS card.

GPS technology failed to perform well when Census used it to update local addresses in tests conducted in 2004 and 2006 with different wireless computers and software. In those early tests, the GPS technology was inaccurate and wireless data transmissions were too slow, officials said. The handheld computers also locked up frequently. A batch of replacement devices performed so poorly in a 2006 test that Census offices could not complete the test within the allotted six weeks. An extra 10 days also didn’t help, GAO’s auditors reported.

Those negative reports upset lawmakers, who proposed cutting million from the bureau’s 8 million fiscal 2007 budget, a reduction that would have severely undermined the bureau’s modernization efforts, said Census Director Louis Kincannon. Congress didn’t cut the funding.

Discouraged by failed tests in 2004 and 2006, Census officials outsourced the modernization project. In March 2006, the agency awarded a five-year, 0 million contract to Harris, a large systems integrator, to create a digital census map of the United States using MCDs and GPS software.

“That digital map is the road network that has helped create the census blocks,” said Mike Murray, vice president of census programs at Harris. “We then use those maps on the handheld devices so that the enumerators know where they are.”

A Harris subcontractor, High Tech Computing, manufactured the new MCDs, which were ready in time for the dress rehearsal in June.

Handheld features

The MCDs have 10-hour batteries and LCD screens that are visible in direct sunlight. When they are in use, each wireless GPS-equipped device sends information to local Census offices once every hour. If connection glitches prevent one of those hourly transmissions, a clock on each device shows when the last scheduled transmission should have occurred. When field enumerators visit households in which people have not mailed census forms, they will use the MCDs to collect that survey data on a short electronic form that they transmit to a local field office.

All the information that enumerators collect will be encrypted and stored on a removable card. The MCDs won’t operate until enumerators insert the card.

Census crew leaders will use the MCDs’ instant-messaging capabilities to communicate with the field enumerators. The devices have an optional feature that enables them to be used as digital phones, but Wagner said the bureau most likely will not enable that feature because it would be an additional expense and would drain the MCDs’ batteries too quickly.

The MCD’s design is purposefully plain, Wagner said. Census didn’t want a device with the appeal of a Motorola RAZR, for example, because they want to deter thieves. As a security safeguard, field employees cannot install new programs on the MCDs. Only the manufacturers can add new software to the devices.

The MCDs’ wireless capabilities let Census managers instantaneously locate and reassign workers to different locations where they are needed. “It’s a beautiful thing,” Applewhite said.

Census workers also found the devices were reliable. In a batch of 1,300 MCDs that enumerators used in the dress rehearsal, the bureau found only one that had hardware problems.

However, the biggest surprise for Census officials was how easy it was for nontechnical people to use the MCDs. “If you needed an information technology degree [to use the MCD], we wouldn’t be able to hire enough people,” Wagner said.

Washington said some members of her crew tech were tech-savvy, but most were not. Eventually, however, everyone became comfortable using the devices after they received training.

Wagner said the bureau made Harris responsible for many of the MCDs’ design features, a decision that paid off. For example, Harris suggested requiring two-finger authentication for logging on to the MCDs or awakening the devices from sleep mode instead of using passwords. Wagner said requests for help with misplaced or forgotten passwords accounted for nearly 40 percent of all help-desk calls from enumerators in the 2004 and 2006 tests using other handheld devices.

Harris’ close relationship with GPS software company ESRI also helped Census, Wagner said. ESRI gave Harris its source code to use in developing the MCDs. “We could call [a company] until we’re blue in the face, and we’d never be given that kind of access,” Wagner said.

Transmission glitches

The MCDs’ hardware proved to be reliable, but the software caused some problems during the final dress rehearsal. The devices sometimes failed to transmit data properly. “That’ll be one of the things that we look at,” said Mathew Scire, director of strategic issues at GAO.

In a report released June 15, GAO auditors also described problems in converting census address files from the bureau’s ACSII format to common database file formats, such as Microsoft Access, that local census offices use.

Wagner said most of the software problems that GAO identified during the dress rehearsal have been addressed and solved. He added that he was pleased that the software, which Harris subcontractors developed in about a year, works as well as it does. “On a major IT program like this, that’s a pretty good accomplishment.”

Murray said Harris can fix any remaining anomalies in the software by using the wireless network to download patches to each of the devices.

The final dress rehearsal also uncovered another problem: insufficient storage on cards designed for the MCDs. Applewhite said Harris twice had to upgrade the amount of storage available on the cards, and even that wasn’t enough when enumerators began performing quality-control procedures on the addresses they had collected. For that phase, a few employees using a small number of MCDs were working with a much larger number of addresses than enumerators had on their devices in the address collection phase.

In quality control, field workers check the validity of the collected addresses. Fewer employees undertake this task, and they use fewer devices overall. Because of this, each device needed three to four times the amount of storage.

The next act in the final dress rehearsal will be mailing census questionnaires to a sample population and sending enumerators, carrying MCDs, to interview people who didn’t return their questionnaires. Between 30 million and 34 million people nationwide typically don’t return the questionnaires, which makes the follow-up visit the most lengthy and time-consuming phase of the decennial census.

Applewhite said she wouldn’t be so eager to participate in the first 21st-century census if it required paper-based address lists, maps and questionnaires.

“It’s almost hard to imagine how they went through it on paper” in the past, she said.

10 features of Census’ mobile computing device

Census-takers will carry special computing devices from High Tech Computing when they conduct the 2010 census. They tested the devices during a June dress rehearsal.

Each computing device:

Collects address and questionnaire data.

Provides instant-messaging capabilities so team leaders can communicate with census-takers.

Integrates wireless communications and Global Positioning System tracking and enables census-takers to upload data to census offices once an hour.

Lets managers reassign work based on how much work individual census-takers have done in certain locations.

Has 128-bit encrypted Secure Digital media cards that lock the devices when removed.

Authenticates users with a two-fingerprint image and request for log-on information.

Tracks workhours when census-takers log on.

Runs for 10 hours on a battery charge.

Displays information on an LCD that is visible in direct sunlight.

Uses a plain design to discourage people from stealing the devices.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

Counting the Gulf Coast

Census Bureau officials are still exploring options for conducting the 2010 census in the Gulf Coast region, where Hurricane Katrina permanently altered the geography and demographics.

The bureau has yet to formulate a plan for tackling the region, said Mathew Scire, director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office. “There’s more planning that [Census officials] need to do to develop a strategy,” he said.

They might decide to eliminate the address-canvassing portion of the process and simply send enumerators with mobile computing devices to conduct the census, Scire said. However, that approach would require many census-takers and would likely have a negative impact on their productivity, he added.

However, if the agency decides to go ahead with address canvassing, it would need additional resources, he said.

— Wade-Hahn Chan
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