Census' DADS: A good idea, but let's not forget about print

The Census Bureau is busy inventing the next generation of delivery mechanisms for getting government information to the people. It's called the Data Access and Dissemination System (DADS), and it's intended to be the information distribution system to carry the agency into the 21st century.

While one might wish the agency had hit upon a more euphonic acronym, DADS will make you sit up and take notice.

DADS started with a bold step: "The Internet, along with other electronic delivery systems, will gradually become the primary sources for Census Bureau statistics."

Among other things, this means that Census intends gradually to abandon the printed page as a primary distribution format.

Already Census has issued a list of publications that will no longer be available in print but only electronically on CD-ROM or on the Internet.

Last year Census decided that it could only design and build the new system through steady and continuing consultation with its many data users. The agency then surveyed its users, inside and outside of government, convening focus groups with business and economic organizations, ethnic minority and rural groups, academia and the media.

Users told Census they wanted two different things. On the one hand, they still wanted to be able to retrieve, order or download some prepackaged statistical summaries - the ones they were used to seeing from past years. On the other hand, they wanted the ability to define their own customized data products on-line.

DADS is designed to give users both prepackaged statistical summaries and the ability to perform their own value-added data manipulation, extraction, display and downloading.

Users will be able to construct their own data tables and even calculate simple statistics. Census intends the system to be intuitive and user-friendly, to provide on-line help and training and, eventually, to provide access to all Census data sets.

Not Just Population Statistics

Remember, Census is not just about population statistics. It collects and publishes statistics on population, housing, agriculture, governments, business, manufacturing and foreign trade, to name but a few of its subject areas.

The ambition for DADS is that the user will be able to tap into all those statistical areas on-line in real time. The unifying principle is geography. Census will integrate into DADS all its data sources with comparable levels of geographic detail.

We're talking vast quantities of information here. For example, by this fall, Census expects to have a prototype of DADS ready for testing. The prototype will include only the data from the 1990 census of population. That alone will amount to 150G of data that users will be able to access interactively on-line. By the time DADS is available to the public in 2001, the size of the available databases will be many multiples of 150G.

All this information largesse will come at a price to users. Most of the on-line DADS transactions will involve a fee. Census recently issued a pricing policy for its existing information products. It now finds itself wrestling with the problem of how DADS-based products will be priced.

A series of knotty problems lines the path to implementation. For one thing, there is the disclosure-avoidance issue presented by Census' strict confidentiality laws. The agency must program into the system a set of techniques for ensuring that users can access and download only aggregate data, statistically protected against the possibility that someone could identify data on individuals.

The Reasons Behind DADS

Much slimmer budgetary resources and the explosion of networked information technology are the primary pushes behind DADS.

One of the pulls is the increasing technological sophistication of data users, who are demanding government information in a timelier fashion and in more accessible electronic formats. Agencies throughout government are abandoning print publishing and hastening to less expensive and faster electronic distribution.

I applaud the wholesale shift to Internet-based dissemination of government information and Census' efforts to create the future now with DADS.

Yet at the same time, I wonder whether we will see a backlash from users who want to read the printed page.

Print publishers are not going out of business, so far as I know. Libraries and many other institutions still want bound books to give to their customers.

In their rush to give us Internet goodies, agencies must not forget that the demand for information in print is still strong.

**

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates, Washington, D.C. He can be reached via the Internet at jtsprehe@intr.net. This column can be read on FCW's home page at http://www.fcw.com.

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