Opinion

The monumental IT opportunity of the 2020 census

Shutterstock image: digital charts and graphs.

The decennial census determines where federal tax money will be allocated for roads and schools, among other things. And, of course, the new population totals from the 2020 census will determine how many representatives to the House each state receives.

Clearly, the stakes couldn't be higher, especially because so much about our country has changed since 2010. For many reasons, the 2020 census IT challenge is exponentially larger than ever.

Think about it this way: No company using off-the-shelf software has ever had to survey 300 million people. The 2020 census requires a bold new IT strategy, beginning with an on-premises cloud and tapping hybrid cloud technology so computing power can surge as needed to support an agile development environment.

Critical to the count’s success is the confidence of the American people in how their data will be handled. If citizens aren't convinced that the information they share will be secure, the promise of increased digital harvesting of census data will fail to materialize. To earn that confidence, the Census Bureau should adopt the "zero trust" model for its networks and proven endpoint security for devices.

Zero trust is achieved by creating micro-segmented network environments, which prevent unauthorized lateral movement by establishing automated governance rules to manage the movement of users and data across the network.

When a user or system "breaks the rules" the potential threat is compartmentalized, and security staff can take any appropriate remediation actions. Although it is a new approach to cybersecurity, zero-trust technology is well proven and integrated into the offerings of multiple respected federal contractors.

The other critical component for protecting census data is endpoint security. The key to securely harvesting data via mobile devices is liberating the data from the end device and moving it into the data center. Advances in end-user computing help IT teams streamline management, increase control over desktop assets and improve overall service levels. To simplify only slightly, the approach does all that by making the specific end device unimportant.

After all, only the data and the applications matter -- not the small piece of hardware in the citizen's (or enumerator's) hand. And once management of the device moves to the data center, the endpoints become easier to control and secure. Agencies can use existing security investments and add policies for managing mobile devices, applications and content.

In addition to security, the applications used for the 2020 census must be Apple-like in their ease of use. For example, the Census Bureau is expected to enlist 300,000 to 500,000 people to go door to door and contact those who don't respond to mailed questionnaires. How patient will those visited individuals be if the enumerator has trouble taking down their information? (The question of whether to provide the devices or let enumerators bring their own is also a major issue.)

The challenges are enormous, and Congress is watching carefully. The Census Bureau has publicly committed to reducing costs, using existing resources and maintaining the highest levels of data quality. That won't be easy, and the decisions made now will have enduring ramifications.

New technology, however, gives Census officials powerful tools to work with and the ability to move quickly. Used properly, hybrid clouds and zero-trust models can help make the 2020 census a monumental success and usher in a new era for federal IT execution.

About the Author

Bill Rowan is vice president federal, VMware Public Sector.

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