Editorial: Census and the Internet

There is a role for the Internet in the census collection process

When we first heard that the Census Bureau was not going to use the Internet to collect data, we were ready to pounce. Frankly, we were inclined to agree with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who said during a recent hearing that he was going to “do everything I can to force the Internet down your throat with amendments.

You are living in the past, not the future. I recommend you get on board for 2010.”
That bravado aside, the bureau should be given credit for making a careful and thoughtful assessment of its use of the Internet for the decennial count. It is a massive job: counting everybody in the country every decade. And that count has enormous implications, including determining the number of House seats for each state.

Census makes a strong argument that using the Internet simply doesn’t make good business sense. There is little evidence that using the Internet to collect data will save the bureau money, Census argues.

Furthermore, using the Internet won’t help the bureau reach people that it doesn’t reach now, and it will not help the bureau reach groups that are traditionally difficult to reach, such as immigrants or the homeless. There is a concern that any evidence of Internet fraud or a security breach — either real or perceived — would hinder the bureau’s ability to collect data, even mailed-in data. Therefore, Census officials argue, in a worst-case scenario, the Internet could actually cost money and hinder the count.

Census officials argue that, far from being a Luddite, the bureau is a global leader in using the Internet to post data. As Federal Computer Week reported in the July 23 issue, the bureau will outfit 2010 census enumerators with handheld devices, which will be a big step toward eliminating traditional pencil and paper surveys.
Census officials compare their job to voting, which is not done via the Internet for many of the same reasons.

It is a convincing argument. It is well thought out. And it is conservative.
Fortunately or unfortunately — and it is probably both — the Internet is an essential part of how about every organization does business. We accept the bureau’s decision, but we also ardently believe that there is a role for the Internet in the census collection process.

During the hearing, Coburn outlined the Coburn Census Internet Challenge by asking the private sector to develop a role for the Internet in the Census count. We hope the minds at places such as Google, Amazon.com, Apple and Microsoft can help Census meet this challenge, if not for the 2010 census then certainly by 2020.


About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.

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