Census tries PDAs, Web technology

Census Bureau's 2004 Overseas Enumeration Test

In preparation of the 2010 census, U.S. Census Bureau officials are running at least two tests to evaluate new methods and procedures including data collection technologies, such as the Internet and personal digital assistants.

In an enumeration test beginning Feb. 2, bureau officials will provide U.S. citizens living abroad with the choice of mailing back a paper questionnaire or responding via the Internet. The second test, beginning in early March, will involve mailing paper questionnaires to seven neighborhoods in northwest Queens, N.Y., and to three southwest Georgia counties: Colquitt, Thomas and Tift.

Bureau officials will not release official population statistics because the main thrust is to evaluate various methods and technologies, said Kimberly Crews, the bureau's senior public affairs specialist. However, in the overseas test, officials are exploring not only the technology but also the feasibility of counting private U.S. citizens who are not with the military or federal government.

"We get a count from the military and government as to who's where and which country and what their home state is," she said. "So the other people who live overseas don't get counted, and there's been some movement from some groups that we should count people who live overseas," she said.

The first tests will be conducted in France, Kuwait and Mexico. The questionnaire will include questions such as name, relationship to others in the household, age, sex, race or Hispanic origin, citizenship, last U.S. address and passport number.

"And they will have the option of responding by paper questionnaire or via the Internet," she said. "I assume most of them will probably respond via the Internet but we'll see."

There's no Internet response option on the second test, but census takers equipped with PDAs would be deployed to follow up on households that didn't send back questionnaires, Crews said. It will be the first time such handheld devices are used for that kind of work, although laptop computers were used in a limited fashion during the last decennial census, Crews said. In testing the usability and security of PDAs, census takers would be able to get their assignments electronically, she said.

Over the next four years, Crews said several more similar tests using the Internet and PDAs at specific sites would be conducted. "And then in 2008 we have a dress rehearsal," she said. "So in 2008, basically whatever technologies have been accepted, what will be used in 2008, are the ones that will be used in 2010."

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