Florida site catches what the Census missed

Online tool for correcting omissions will be used for redistricting next year

The Florida House of Representatives is making a month-long push to ensure that state residents are counted in the 2010 Census through its MyFloridaCensus Web site, which gives residents the opportunity to contribute information, such as whether they've been included in the Census.

The House plans to turn MyFloridaCensus into an online tool for the public to participate in the process of redistricting, the redrawing of political boundary lines, Florida officials said. That will happen next year.

MyFloridaCensus is hosted in the Microsoft Windows Azure cloud platform and runs using Microsoft Silverlight, a development platform for creating rich media applications and business applications for the Web, desktop and mobile devices.

With the support of a Bing Maps interface, the collective technology lets visitors to the site share their experiences with the 2010 Census. In turn, the Florida House provides the U.S. Census Bureau, state and local governments, and citizens with dynamic feedback and visual representations of that feedback.

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Rep. Dean Cannon (R-Winter Park) spearheaded MyFloridaCensus because he wanted to have Floridians involved in the redistricting and Census processes, said Bob West, director of the Florida House of Representatives’ Office of Reapportionment.

The Florida House is using the site to help identify people the Census might have missed, supplementing the door-to-door canvassing of residents, scheduled to end nationwide on July 10. Depending on whose estimates are used, each missed person could cost the state $900 to $3,000 in lost federal funds, West said.

The Florida House initially sent out e-mails, primarily to state employees, asking them to go to the site to let state officials know if they were reached or missed by the Census. Through the process, the state identified 3,000 people who were missed, West said. About 19,000 employees went to the site to give information.

State officials often find that when a person has not been counted, their entire street or neighborhood has been missed, said Alex Kelly, a Florida legislative analyst. So it opened the door to actually finding a number of communities, at least at the time, that were going uncounted, Kelly said.

The combination of Azure, Silverlight and Bing Maps gives the Florida House the flexibility to move complicated layers of information, West said.

For instance, as the information technology team worked on the redistricting component, they discovered that, if they used other technologies, they would have to essentially build a duplicate version of an application for each Web browser they wanted to support, at least three or four times. Using Silverlight, they built an application once that was compatible across various browsers, West said.

Bing Maps allowed the House to avoid having to develop its own road maps, water layers and aerial images, West said. "Using Bing Maps and the Silverlight plug-in gave us a lot of tools we needed to build the application,” he said.

After building the Web site, the Florida House needed a place to host it. They thought about doing it in-house but estimated that it would cost the state $300,000 over four years, including licensing and servers.

The Florida House built MyFloridaCensus expecting there to be short periods of high demand interspersed with longer stretches of relatively low usage. On the Azure cloud platform, state officials can pay only for the resources they use.

During peak times, the state has two copies of the Web site to handle the load. After peak times, they go back to one. The same server platform in-house would have cost $15,000 over the four years, so going to the cloud offers infrastructure and maintenance savings.

By the middle of next year, The Florida House will flip the switch and turn the site into a redistricting application, Kelly said.

“When we get the results of the Census – by April 1, 2011 – we will put those up over-layed with Bing Maps,” Kelly said. Local government officials will be able to go online and see the results and challenge any discrepancies. For instance, a town or county may have grown to 10,000 people from 4,000 but a couple of thousand are missing. That means a major difference in federal and state money allotted to that municipality, Kelly noted.

The Web site, though, will also allow the public to submit their suggestions about the redrawing of congressional districts. The state attempted this a few years ago, but the desktop software used at the time was not an interactive, dynamic tool, West said.

“We’re getting into the realm where we are not just offering up information for constituents, but we are asking them for the information and to participate,” Kelly said.

About the Author

Rutrell Yasin is is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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