Census director raises a red flag about the upcoming e-census

Report on 2010 Census

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The 2010 census could be the first one to employ portable computer devices in the field to increase the timeliness and accuracy of data reporting. But Census Bureau officials now say that several factors threaten to spoil their plans for an electronic census.

Lawmakers approved a $54 million cut to the bureau’s $878 million budget request for fiscal 2007. Louis Kincannon, the bureau’s director, said the cuts might delay the bureau’s plans to transform the way it conducts the census.

“A reduction of this magnitude in the fiscal 2007 funding would have a major impact…and could prevent the Census Bureau from making long-sought improvements and meeting the agreed-upon goals of the re-engineered census,” Kincannon recently told the House Appropriations Committee’s Science, the Departments of State, Justice and Commerce and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

Kincannon said the reduced budget could put the bureau’s mobile computing device program on hold. The devices would give census-takers the ability to enter data electronically and transmit it via satellite, adding convenience and speed to the data-gathering process.

Commercial handheld computers revealed reliability problems during dress rehearsals the bureau conducted in 2004 and 2006, said Brenda Farrell, acting director of strategic issues at the Government Accountability Office, who also testified at the hearing. The devices had transmission issues, memory overloads and problems with a mapping feature, she said.

The commercial handhelds tested in early 2006 processed data slowly, and their Global Positioning System connections experienced problems. The bureau extended its testing by 10 days but was still unsuccessful, Farrell said.

The bureau awarded a $600 million contract to Harris in March to provide mobile devices from High Tech Computer, but they will not be available for testing until the final 2008 dress rehearsal, Farrell said. If that test fails, census-takers might still be using paper forms in 2010, adding another $1.3 billion to the cost, she said.

“The stakes for a successful census are very high,” Farrell said, adding that, for the 2010 census, the bureau will make the most extensive use of contractors in its history.

An industry analyst attributed the problems with the previous handheld devices to cost management and integration issues rather than to unsolvable technological problems. In the 2004 and 2006 dress rehearsals, the bureau did a lot of the integration work itself, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting.

“What they realized is that they need to hire an integrator,” Suss said.

Technology budget cuts could reduce the efficiency, effectiveness and accuracy of the next census, Suss said. Given the enormous involvement of contractors and private industry’s investment in the 2010 census, the budget cuts make little sense, he said.

“You can’t take a program like this,” he added, “especially after the contract competition has occurred, after we got all the best ideas and practices from industry, and say, ‘Oh, by the way, now you gotta do it for 20 percent less.’”

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