Census envisions handhelds for 2010 head count

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 crank out the results of the 2000 census, agency officials say they are looking for state-of-the-art technology to use in the next national head count.

Census officials say one of the chief requirements is providing access to the Global Positioning System via hand.held computers, which will help pinpoint the addresses of those who have not filled out the census forms and give enumerators directions for finding them.

"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.

Robert Marx, chief of the Census Bureau's Geography Division, said the agency is working to modernize its database of streets, houses and addresses with an eye toward making the database available to enumerators in the field.

For the 2010 census, Marx said, the bureau expects to equip up to 500,000 field employees with mobile computing devices and GPS receivers to replace traditional pen and paper. The enumerators would have access to the census questionnaire, local maps, addresses and GPS coordinates, and they could upload the data they collect.

For the 2000 census, enumerators had to find 35 million households that did not respond to the initial census questionnaire, he said.

"If you think about the job in the past, it entailed a paper-made address list and...the navigational skills of the [enumerator] to get to the right housing unit," Marx said. "The GPS can almost drag you there by saying, 'Here's where you need to get to, and here's the coordinate.'"

The bureau will test new ideas with pilot projects in 2004 and 2006. Handheld computer companies are already looking for 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 enumerator to carry a 2.5-pound device 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."

Tom Offutt, general manager of the mobile and wireless products division at ViewSonic Corp., a visual technology company, said the technology is ripe for Census use.

"We have customers who are taking our existing products and implementing similar type solutions for sales force automation," said Offutt, whose company has been talking to Census officials about supplying devices for the 2010 count.

"Our device is like a pad of paper," he added. "It is definitely something you can walk with all day long, write on, collect data and transmit the data."

Alan Balutis, executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils and its Industry Advisory Council, said that for the 2000 census, enumerators used laptops to record information, but "this is a step further in that same direction to make use of GPS and handheld computers."


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