Will Census be ready for Internet response in 2020?

The Census Bureau hasn't established a time frame for its cloud computing plans, including testing for scalability, security, and privacy protection, as well as determining a budget for cloud services.

Shutterstock image: cloud infrastructure.

The government is planning an Internet response option for the 2020 decennial census, but it's not clear if the Census Bureau will be ready with computing infrastructure by the time operational design decisions are due at the end of September 2015, according to a Government Accountability Office report. The GAO also has concerns about the ability of the Census to estimate costs associated with developing an Internet response.

The Census Bureau hopes that using the Internet to collect Census data will result in cost savings over the 2010 enumeration, and will encourage fuller response among the U.S. population. But technological hurdles remain, including how the Census will validate responses from survey participants.

The Census is looking at an option that allows respondents to submit data without the use of individual ID numbers. But to accomplish this, the Census will need to develop an alternative method of tracking and de-duping responses. Additionally, the GAO report asserts that the bureau lacks capacity for storing and processing the volume of data anticipated to be returned by respondents. The GAO report notes that the Census Bureau hasn't established a time frame for its cloud computing plans, including testing for scalability, security and privacy protection, as well as determining a budget for cloud services.

"Without established high level time frames, Bureau officials will not know whether there is enough time to effectively implement a cloud environment," the report says.

The GAO recommended that the Census Bureau update cost estimates for its use of the Internet in the 2020 enumeration, make sure the technology is in place to accommodate data gathered over the Internet, and establish a business plan for deploying a cloud computing environment that is flexible, scalable and secure.

"With about 8 months remaining until the design decision and with major tests already designed or completed, the Bureau has limited time to determine how critical research questions will be answered," the report said.

The Census did not concur with or dispute the GAO recommendations. On the IT front, the Census reply comments said that GAO may have misunderstood some of the jargon and shop-talk in Census documents, and that the bureau has "developed project plans, methodologies, and timeframes for making decisions related to IT infrastructure needs, including the need for cloud computing to support the 2020 Census requirements." Additionally, forthcoming documentation will include a timetable, cost estimates and projected response rates for Internet surveys, based on field testing.

The GAO disputed the characterization presented in the Census reply comments, noting that "key officials from the 2020 Census and IT directorates ... confirmed the facts of our analysis."

Some of these questions will be answered in September, when the Census is set to deliver a preliminary design plan for the 2020 enumeration, which will include updated cost estimates. But look for Congress to take a hard look at the plans for the 2020 count before then, given the size, scope and importance of the survey, and past missteps by the bureau in incorporating online response into the enumeration toolkit.

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