Census reconsiders use of handheld computers

Rising costs and confusion about requirements have spurred the Census Bureau and its parent Commerce Department to re-evaluate the use of handheld computers for recording addresses during the 2010 Census and to consider returning to paper surveys.

In addition, those problems have led the Government Accountability Office to designate the 2010 Census as a high-risk area.

Handheld computers are the major problem for the decennial Census’ Field Data Collection Automation (FDCA) process. The computers, developed by Harris, performed acceptably in last year’s dress rehearsal for canvassing, but the rising costs concern members of Congress and GAO.

A recent rough life-cycle cost estimate puts the 2010 Census at $11.8 billion, but the final cost  could be higher.

“At this point, there’s an awful lot we don’t know,” said Mathew Scire, GAO’s director of Census and regulatory issues, at a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing held today. Scire said he had serious concerns about the estimates’ accuracy.

Those costs rose in part because the bureau and Harris could not agree on requirements. The bureau gave the latest version of the requirements to Harris in mid-January. When the company returned a substantial cost estimate for tackling those requirements, it took the agency and the Commerce Department by surprise.

“What we had perceived as serious but manageable problems that were being addressed, we now viewed as critical and urgent matters,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said. “There is no question that both the Census Bureau and Harris could have done things differently and better over the past couple of years.”

However, the entrance of newly minted Census Director Steve Murdock — only one and a half months on the job — encouraged the committee because he wasted little time in confronting the problems behind FDCA.

Murdock performed a full evaluation of the Decennial Census and on Feb. 6 launched the 2010 Census FDCA Risk Reduction Task Force. Headed by a former acting director of the agency and staffed by members of the bureau and Commerce and consultants from Mitre, the task force developed four options to pursue. Each would apportion a different slice of responsibility for the three major aspects of FDCA: following up with non-responders, operating the infrastructure of field offices and developing the control system to run those operations.

The options are:

  •  Census would continue the current contract but also consider forming a paper-based backup plan should the handhelds underperform in this year’s Census dress rehearsal.

  • Census would use the handheld devices for address canvassing while the bureau takes over the rest of FDCA’s functions that include following up with nonresponders, developing the infrastructure of field operations and completing the operations control system, which Harris has already mostly developed. Non-response follow-up would be paper-based.

  • Census would use a paper-based non-response follow-up and take over field operations infrastructure. Harris would finish developing the operations control system.

  • Census would conduct a paper survey for non-responders and the rest of the functions would remain Harris’ responsibility.

Gutierrez said Commerce and the bureau need to move quickly and promised to decide which option to take within two to three weeks. To do so, he said he will appoint a panel of five to seven experts, including former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and former Census Bureau Directors Ken Prewitt and Vince Barabba.

Committee members expressed their concerns over the additional costs behind the options, as returning to a paper survey would require more employees, both hired and contracted.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Texas) worried that those last minute hires would be at a premium. “It’s a market,” he said. “They’re going to advantage themselves and I would, too.”

Coburn suggested that Census use Web-based cell phone applications that use the existing network infrastructure for the handhelds as a possible alternative.

Although Murdock responded that the operating system used for the handhelds would be difficult to migrate to cell phone use, he and Gutierrez promised to look into that option and get back to the committee.

In past hearings, Coburn repeatedly criticized the bureau’s reluctance to migrate to Internet surveys, citing the fact that the Internal Revenue Service now collects a substantial number of tax forms online.


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