Census readies offices for 2000

The Census Bureau recently finished automating and began staffing 130 out of 520 temporary census field offices that will support data collection activities during the next national head count.

Under the Automation Infrastructure Local Census Office program, Census will lease, set up and automate 520 field offices nationwide that will serve as home bases for the hundreds of thousands of temporary staff the bureau will recruit to check addresses and visit houses that do not return census forms.

LCO staff members will produce maps and assignments for census takers, or enumerators, recruit local temporary employees and manage payroll and personnel systems supporting temporary workers in the field, in addition to other duties.

The LCOs are an integral part of producing accurate census results, according to the bureau. "It's fair to say that all censuses start with addresses and geography," said Judith Dawson, assistant to the assistant chief for census automation. "We are the data collection folks. We take the basic geographic files and use those to produce a first set of materials sent to the field."

Currently, temporary staff at 36 LCOs are checking the accuracy of the mailing addresses maintained in a master address file that was created using 1990 census data and addresses from the U.S. Postal Service. Beginning in May, employees at all 130 LCOs will validate addresses the bureau receives from local governments and make sure there are no duplicates. After the census forms are mailed out next March, employees will visit households that have not responded to collect the pertinent data.

The additional 390 LCOs will open in late summer and early fall of this year, and all of them will close at the end of 2000.

Each LCO will be set up with client/server-based systems, rather than mini computers, which were used during the 1990 census, Dawson said. "This allows us to control what the systems look like in each of the offices," she said. "We have a better opportunity to have the local census offices looking the same, running the same versions of software and applications."

Unisys Corp. last September won a $50 million contract to provide, install and maintain the hardware necessary to automate the LCOs and connect them to the bureau's wide-area network. Each LCO office will have the same hardware configuration: a router/switch from Cisco Systems Inc., a server from Dell Computer Corp., 14 Dell workstations and three printers from Hewlett-Packard Co. Unisys also configures applications such as the payroll and personnel system and the control and tracking software that allows LCOs to produce address listings.

One challenge will be rolling out equipment and installing local-area networks in 520 offices in a short amount of time, said Jim Hamill, program manager for the LCO program at Unisys.

"We only had 45 days from delivery order to our first installation" when rolling out the first 130 offices, he said. Parts were deployed from 11 locations across the country, and LANs were installed in two to three days, Hamill said. Unisys uses Microsoft Corp.'s Excel and Project to help track and coordinate LAN installation.

The next round of LCO installations should be easier, Hamill said. "We're looking for increased automation for the second go-around," he said. This includes automating installation of the server software instead of having to manually point and click at each step in the process.

Funding and politics, not technology, may be the LCO program's biggest challenges, said Bob Dornan, senior vice president at Federal Sources Inc. Census is expected to spend several billion dollars more on the 2000 census than anticipated because the Supreme Court ruled it could not use the less expensive method of statistical sampling for enumeration purposes. "This starts at the highest level," he said.

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