Census reaches out for handhelds

The U.S. Census Bureau is looking for a few good ideas for using handheld computers to help conduct the 2010 census.

Even as the agency continues to compile the numbers and crank out the results of the 2000 census, officials already are planning to use state-of-the-art technology for the 2010 count. In a recent notice seeking information, agency officials say they are looking for ideas and products for using mobile computing devices for the next count of the nation's population.

Census officials say they plan to use mobile computing devices for address list updates, map updates and interviews. They also are looking for devices that offer e-mail and links to the Global Positioning System.

"We think that handheld computers could greatly aid us in terms of the follow-up operations we have to do," said a Census Bureau spokesman.

"The computers will be used to find households that have not responded to the first mailed survey. It will reduce reliance on paper. We believe we can handle things more efficiently by using computers," the spokesman said.

The Census Bureau will be testing new ideas in pilot projects in 2004 and 2006. Handheld computer companies are already looking at ways to adapt their products to the bureau's needs.

Officials at Melard Technologies Inc., which makes rugged and wireless computer systems, said their handheld PC would allow a census taker to carry a relatively light device -- 2.5 pounds with a half-page display screen and a full-size keyboard.

"It is a durable product," said Bob Wright, the company's product manager. "The census taker wouldn't need to worry about dropping it, getting it wet. It is still lightweight so it won't be difficult to carry,"

Census Bureau officials also are looking at ways to use technology for a more accurate count. In addition to modernizing the bureau's master address file, they are planning to give citizens the option of filing their questionnaires online and using other technology that would make it possible to "accurately locate a house so you don't rely on paper," the bureau spokesman said.

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