Census counts on handhelds to cut field data-gathering costs

The Census Bureau’s plan to use handheld computers during the 2010 census could save about $300 million alone on the cost of door-to-door counting, bureau officials say.

The handhelds are a part of a broader plan to cut costs, and streamline the collection and dissemination of population data. Officials detailed their needs for automated field data collection in a request for proposals released last month.

“With handhelds, you can completely restructure and re-engineer field operations. You can save a lot more than the cost of handhelds in what it can produce,” said Preston Waite, associate director for the decennial census.

In 2000, Census spent $7.6 billion collecting population data. Using the same methods in 2010 would cost $12.6 billion, Waite said, but Census expects to cut that to $11.3 billion as a result of using the handhelds and making other planned improvements—including a data integration system, improved master file and a mapped database.

For the population count, Census sends out about 130 million forms to heads of households and subsequently scans the forms into a digital format. Over the decades, the bureau has collected huge reams of paper, paying to store it.

The next wave of data comes when Census temporarily hires 500,000 population counters, or enumerators, to get data from households that did not return their forms. The plan for 2010 is to have enumerators use GPS-enabled handhelds to improve their ability to find people and collect information.

“It simplifies data acquisition, helps support management of the enumerator’s time so that the enumerator spends less time getting ready for each interview, and helps support moving from one dwelling to another,” Commerce CIO Tom Pyke said.

The counters would enter data from the interview into the handheld, which transmits the information to databases. The integrator will determine how that transmission happens, Pyke said.

In its request for proposals, Census is seeking an integrator to develop, implement and manage applications, equipment, local area networks and telecommunications, and provide support services for field data collection operations. Census anticipates awarding the contract in April 2006. The contract is estimated to be worth about $650 million, Waite said.

The bureau by the end of September also will award a contract for back-end systems to integrate the data from paper and handhelds, and create a record of the data and GPS mapping, Waite said.

An example of the functionality Census expects the handheld to support is the interview application. It would provide the enumerator with the capability during any point in the interview to add extensive notes to describe more thoroughly complex living situations not adequately covered by the specific questions, reducing the number of follow-up interviews.

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