Census 2020 goes mobile, maybe

The Census Bureau is wrestling with big questions about how it will incorporate mobile devices and Internet responses into its next big tally. Plus, the bureau still needs a new CIO.

Shutterstock image: mobile enterprise.

Moving a 225-year-old government program into the 21st century takes work.

Census Bureau techies recently explained the planning behind their attempt to bring mobile technology to the 2020 census, 10 years after a botched attempt cost the government billions of dollars.

According to Atri Kalluri, chief of the bureau's Decennial Information Technology Division, the big mobile questions are whether officials will allow enumerators to load an app on their own devices, furnish enumerators with devices or pursue a hybrid model. Kalluri spoke at an Oct 23 meeting of the Information Security and Privacy Advisory Board, a group convened by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Test runs for the next census in Houston and Los Angeles will explore those options, Kalluri added.

"This isn't really new to us," said Evan Moffett, the bureau's assistant division chief for geographic operations. "Last census, we put 154,000 mobile devices in the field for address canvassing, and we've got a small army of staff out there, knocking on doors every day."

But the 2010 census also saw the failure of an effort to give enumerators mobile devices. Faced with the prospect of missing end-to-end testing after two years of device development, Census officials went back to pen and paper for enumerators, a move that cost billions. If the bureau can nail innovation this time around, the savings could be immense.

Kalluri said the bureau plans to shrink from the 600,000 enumerators it employed in 2010 to 300,000 in 2020 and employ only one supervisor per 15 enumerators, as opposed to one supervisor for every eight enumerators in 2010).

In its operational plan, the bureau estimated it could save $5 billion by relying on Internet responses, outside data and mobile devices.

Kalluri noted that Census developed the Compass app in-house. It could replace pen and paper while allowing enumerators to work more efficiently in the field and quickly upload the collected, encrypted information via virtual private network connections.

Security is paramount, Moffett said, noting that an application wrapper would help containerize the app, which would require login credentials to function.

Besides saving time, Compass also supplies enumerators with multilingual introductions. In the Houston test run, the app will be loaded with Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, Spanish, English and Russian language options, with more choices potentially on the horizon, Moffett said.

"We're kind of doing a slow roll on these languages," he added.

And Compass won't necessarily be the app Census uses. The bureau might decide to turn to the private sector instead, Kalluri said.

The bureau won't finalize its operational plan until 2017, he added. In the meantime, the 14-part Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing project is on the Government Accountability Office's 2015 list of high-risk IT investments.

Leadership is a bit of an open question as well. Census Bureau Director John Thompson's first term will end before the 2020 census, though he could return for a second term under a new presidential administration. And the bureau is without a permanent CIO.

Deputy CIO Harry Lee has been serving in an acting capacity since August, and as of Oct. 23, the bureau had not posted the CIO job (though a spokesperson told FCW a posting was "imminent").

Who might the next CIO be?

"I'll be very curious [to see]," Kalluri said.

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