New handhelds keep Census on paperless track

The Census Bureau may still be on track to make the 2010 Census paperless, thanks to new handheld computers, which Harris unveiled last month.

Census takers will use about 1,400 of the new mobile computers in this spring’s address-collection dress rehearsal. Produced by High Tech Computer of Taiwan, which was subcontracted by Harris, the computers replaced earlier commercial units that Census workers used in the 2004 and 2006 dress rehearsals.

Harris received a five-year, $600 million contract in June 2006 for the Census Field Data Collection Automation Program. Under the deal, the company provided new handheld computers.

“The FDCA program is on schedule and exactly as Congress had envisioned it,” said Mike Murray, vice president of Census Programs at Harris’ Government Communications Systems Division. “Automated collection and management of field data will enable a virtually paperless census for the massive address canvassing and non-response follow-up operations, and is critical to delivering a census 'where everyone counts.”

The Government Accountability Office questioned the vision of a paperless census in several reports that it released in the past year detailing the bureau's previous difficulties with handhelds.

GAO found that old computers were unable to reliably transmit information, and their built-in Global Positioning System cards failed to work in the previous dress rehearsals.

GAO added that if new handheld computers were not ready in time for the 2008 dress rehearsal, the Census could be forced to return to a pencil-and-paper system.

The bureau suffered a major setback in August when Congress cut $54 million from the agency's $878 million fiscal 2007 budget. Bureau Director Louis Kincannon said such a reduction in funding could “prevent the Census Bureau from making long-sought improvements and meeting the agreed-upon goals of the re-engineered Census.”

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