Census CIO counts on future tech

Brian McGrath was installed as the Census Bureau’s chief information officer and associate director for information technology about nine months ago, just as the organization was gearing up to perform the 2010 decennial count.

McGrath inherited an organization that was once considered a technology leader in the federal government but has since lost its luster after some well-publicized technology missteps.

Most notably, the bureau had to scrap plans to have census workers use handheld computers to perform follow-up visits with households that did not fill out a census form. Rather, workers will use pens, paper and clipboards for the follow-up visits this year.

Also, unlike our neighbors in Canada, the 2010 census will be performed only with paper forms; no Internet-based option is available.

Before arriving at the Census Bureau, McGrath worked for the Justice Department from 1999 to 2009. For the past five years, McGrath was CIO of the Immigration Review Executive Office. He previously spent 10 years directing the Criminal Justice Information Systems for Alexandria, Va., and seven years as a probation and parole officer in Virginia and New Jersey. He traveled abroad with the U.S. Agency for International Development and the American Bar Association’s Central and Eastern European Law Initiative to provide technical assistance to the Russian Federation for the reinstitution of jury trials.

Staff writer Doug Beizer sat down with McGrath earlier this month at his office in Suitland, Md.

FCW: At a recent Senate hearing, federal CIO Vivek Kundra cited the Census Bureau’s handhelds project as a case study on how not to acquire technology. Even though you were able to use handheld devices to verify addresses before the 2010 count, what lessons can the government learn from this project?

Brian McGrath: Clearly, we did not realize all the benefits from the original project plan on how the handhelds would be used. I would argue we’ve learned a tremendous amount about how a handheld can be used in the field. We were able to make assignments to the folks working in the field [and] get up-to-the-minute feedback on how they were doing and what their workload was looking like.

The GPS-enabled handhelds allowed us to capture the GPS coordinates from each dwelling. And we were able to use the biometric piece to ensure we had the right folks having access to the system so we can protect the data.

FCW: But what did you learn from an acquisition standpoint? What could have been done seven years ago so census workers could have used handheld devices for follow-up visits?

McGrath: First, looking at requirements and making sure they are well-defined, well-thought-out requirements. That’s clearly a lesson we’ve taken away from this effort.

FCW: How will you make sure this doesn’t happen again?

McGrath: In planning for 2020, which we are already doing as an organization, we are really making sure we keep our toes in the water of technology, and of new and emerging technology throughout the decade, so that we don’t wait until mid or late in the decade to say, "Well, we want to do handhelds. What does the marketplace look like?"

So we keep engaged, and we know where the industry is going and where the technology is going.

It is very easy to look at the handheld and some of the limitations we saw and look at them through the eyes of the iPhone. But the iPhone wasn’t in existence in 2003 when this decision was really made. Nor do we want to get caught up in the excitement of the iPhone and forget where technology is going to take us in the next eight or nine years.

FCW: What do you expect to gain by “keeping your toe in the water” when it comes to technology?

McGrath: Not reinvent the wheel if we don’t need to. Not looking to go to a highly proprietary solution if we don’t need to.

FCW: How did the handheld devices perform with address canvassing in 2009?

McGrath: A lot of the focus on the handheld was the negative, and what got lost is there were clearly productivity gains. Clearly there was a better flow of information. Clearly the data was more secure. And we were able to collect more and better data.

Now we have to take the positives as well as the negatives and figure out how to meld that into what will hopefully be a much different looking, configured and commercially available device for 2020.

FCW: The 2010 Census will be performed with paper forms. Why haven’t you moved to electronic forms yet?

McGrath: The decision to not use an Internet-based capability was made several years ago. Interestingly enough, we are already engaged in Internet-based survey activities. We have 16 surveys that we currently conduct online. About a third of those are leading economic indicators such as manufacturing numbers. So we are in that market. We have 23 additional surveys we are going to deploy online in the next 12 to 18 months.

FCW: But still not for the decennial count? Are there specific challenges to moving from paper to the Web?

McGrath: The big challenge is how do we reach everyone. There will still be some component of a paper-based notification to each household. What we want to move to — and what we’re doing with these other surveys — is some are available exclusively online and others have an option to use paper.

Clearly, there are benefits to being able to ingest the data directly. We can edit the data in a more efficient way through online versus sending out a paper form, so that we can help the participants provide us with more accurate data.

FCW: If it has benefits, when will it happen?

McGrath: Clearly, when we move to 2020, there will be a significant Internet-based component.

FCW: Why is notification such a big hurdle to getting Web-based forms?

McGrath: You live at a particular address. I don’t have a means of getting to you electronically because I may know your e-mail address, but I don’t know that you live at particular address.

So there still will still be some sense of a paper component potentially. I’ve got to send you a document, I’ve got to contact you at your particular address and encourage you to reply online.

In 2020, we may have this massive database where we know where everybody lives and we have an e-mail address where we can send an e-mail, but that doesn’t exist today. That is why today, there is still a paper component.

FCW: What is the public perception of the Census Bureau from a technology perspective?

McGrath: The Census Bureau actually has a pretty strong history of being an innovative, technological leader. I would argue, in years past, we’ve kind of gotten away from that a little bit.

FCW: So how are you changing that?

McGrath: We are leveraging social media extensively for 2010. We have a Facebook page, we have a YouTube channel, we’re using Twitter. We’re seeing social media as a means of not only communicating but soliciting ideas.

FCW: What are you doing internally for technology?

McGrath: One of the things I want to create in the IT directorate is an innovation lab. Look at creating opportunities for us to receive, distill, evaluate and pilot new and emerging technological advances as they specifically relate to the Census Bureau, taking a…risk-versus-rewards approach. Not every project we engage in is going to deliver the next iPhone.

FCW: The Census Bureau seems tailor-made for cloud computing. There are years where you have huge computing demands and then other years where that drops off precipitously. What are you doing with the cloud?

McGrath: Everybody defines cloud computing just a little bit differently. We are looking at it in three approaches. Census Bureau sits on a pretty robust infrastructure, so part of our internal cloud computing initiative is we are in the process of building a census private cloud, which is to take our existing infrastructure and highly virtualize it. Take a best-practices approach to standardization so we can connect and constitute all of our infrastructure to really deliver rapidly and flexibly a lot of horsepower to our customers.

We have some very, very large databases and large applications that, if we can harness all of the existing infrastructure we have to really throw at these applications during peak periods of time, it will not only be fascinating but I think we can really realize some efficiencies.

FCW: What about the public cloud?

McGrath: We have very strict rules and policies about our data and how we store it and maintain it. That being said, we are using the public cloud pretty extensively today.

We have put the Akamai content delivery network in front of the 2010 census Web site. Obviously, we didn’t have the time and didn’t want to spend the money to build out a massive infrastructure to support orders of magnitude increases in traffic on the 2010 site.

So for a relatively inexpensive price we’ve contracted with Akamai to provide their content delivery network. It gives us a lot more capacity, and it will better position [us] for denial-of-service attacks. We are seeing about 99 percent of the content being delivered from the Akamai network and not even reaching our networks.

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