Scaled-down e-Census project 'a great success,' bureau says

Controversial handheld computers 'worked well' as project finished ahead of schedule

The U.S. Census Bureau took a significant step toward its eventual goal of a true "paperless census" with the successful completion of a national address verification project that relied on the use of 151,000 handheld computers, an official said.

The U.S. Census Bureau took a significant step toward its eventual goal of a true "paperless census" with the successful completion of a national address verification project that relied on the use of 151,000 handheld computers, an official said Wednesday.

Earlier this month, the bureau completed its 2010 Decennial Census Address Canvassing. ADCan, as it is also known, involved more than 150,000 census field workers physically checking all 145 million home addresses in the U.S. It precedes every once-a-decade census.

"The operation was a great success," said Dan Weinberg, assistant director for the Decennial Census, in an interview. "The handheld computers worked well, according to all of our metrics."

Problems that had cropped up in earlier testing of the Windows Mobile-based handhelds built by Taiwanese smartphone maker High Tech Computer Corp., such as slow, clunky software and poor wireless connectivity, were not an issue, he said.

There was only one major software glitch which caused some handhelds to hang if sending data wireless back to the bureau's servers, Weinberg said. It took a week for prime contractor Harris Corp. to create a fix, which it then pushed out wirelessly to all 150,000 handhelds.

Despite that glitch, the project started on March 30 and finished July 10, a week earlier than expected.

"We were running way ahead of schedule, but we had to wait for some flooding in the Jackson, Mississippi area to dissipate," Weinberg said.

"Everything went off without a hitch," agreed Terry Stepien, president of Sybase Inc.'s iAnywhere mobile software division. The handheld computers stored data using Sybase's embedded SQLAnywhere database and were managed remotely by Sybase's Afaria software.

ADCan's apparent success is a much-needed boost for the bureau, which faced immense criticism in the past two years over its plan to abandon the traditional pen-and-paper project in favor of newer technology.

The Census Bureau originally planned to deploy half-a-million handheld wireless computers for both ADCan and the follow-up door-to-door surveys of those who don't reply to their mailed census form.

Equipping census workers with stylus-based handhelds would save time, money and improve accuracy, the bureau said when it announced the plan in 2006.

"We are revolutionizing the census," said then-Census director Louis Kincannon.

The project was put on hold last year, amidst cost overruns -- the bureau paid Harris $800 million, up from $600 million, Weinberg said, despite the smaller project size -- and scathing criticism from the Government Accountability Office over the bureau's readiness to deploy the handhelds.

The bureau chose to deploy the handhelds for the ADCan project but to continue to use pen-and-paper for the Nonresponse Follow-up (NRFU) door-to-door project.

Weinberg acknowledged that there were "multiple problems with the handhelds" after a dress rehearsal in 2007. But "we formed a number of contractor-Census Bureau teams and laid down some very specific requirements."

The handheld's software was improved before going through regression testing, he said. A four-layer help desk infrastructure was also set up. Then the bureau ran an operational field test last December.

"We expected success based on our testing, and we got it," he said.

In prior ADCans, the bureau strove to ensure that 95% of the housing units were coded to the right block.

Using the GPS-equipped handhelds, the bureau is aiming for 99.5% accuracy. It doesn't yet have data on accuracy yet.

About 100 out of 151,000 of the devices were lost or stolen, Weinberg said. But to prevent unauthorized tampering, the handhelds only turn on with its owner's fingerprint. Moreover, all of the data on the handhelds and their removeable SD cards was encrypted. Finally, the bureau remotely wiped clean all of the lost and stolen handhelds, he said.

Handhelds are only one part of a move toward a full paperless census. For instance, most census data is collected via paper forms that are mailed to respondents. That won't change when Census 2010 takes place next year.

"Plenty of people still don't have access to the Internet," Weinberg said. Also, sending out forms to physical addresses helps verify that residents live at their purported address, which is "key for political redistricting purposes," he said.

By 2020, however, the census could evolve, for example, to having respondents sent online login data via mail that would enable them to fill out their form online. Or, door-to-door census takers could be equipped with even more advanced handheld devices.

"We just don't how we are going to do it in 2020, but we are open to a lot of options," he said.

This story, "Scaled-down e-Census project 'a great success,' bureau says" was originally published by Computerworld.

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