Preparing for a decennial task

The decennial census is the largest peacetime program the federal government undertakes. Arnold Jackson, assistant director for decennial information technology and geographic systems at the Census Bureau, is working to ensure that the 2010 census collects, stores and publishes data about the U.S. population, housing and communities.

Census workers must record everyone from the tenants in New York City apartments to the teleworkers in South Dakota to meet the goal. Jackson plans to arm census takers with handheld devices that have the geospatial coordinates of every house in the country. Workers will be able to input data into the devices from the doorsteps of those who don't respond to the census mailing.

Jackson has the monumental task of overseeing all IT for internal and external systems associated with the census. But he did not set out to be a techie. After earning a master's degree in business from Harvard University, he directed a minority-owned management consulting business in Washington, D.C. He came to the bureau for the opportunity to manage a major program. As the 1990 decennial census evolved, he became responsible for integrating IT then jumped back to the private sector.

"I'm not one of these ex-programmer types that used to run a computer room somewhere," Jackson said.

Jackson's boss, Preston Waite, associate director for the decennial census, said it was difficult to convince Jackson to take the job.

"I tracked him down," Waite said. "I knew he was living in the area. I'd worked with him before. I knew I needed some IT help. I told him that I would promise him long hours, hard work and no pay."

Waite said he wanted Jackson on the 2010 census because of his organizational skills, business finesse and experience with emerging IT. "There's a lot of money riding on this, and we're doing some things that have never been done on this scale before," Waite said. "It's pretty exciting stuff, even for us Luddites."

The promise of making a difference and doing something important with his life — while being intellectually stimulated and challenged — was too much for Jackson to resist.

Now he is overseeing an organization that is increasingly dependent on IT. For example, technology consumes roughly a quarter of the $11.3 billion cost of the decennial census, and human resources systems will process roughly 1 million part-time employees during the project.

Jackson has only one chance to get it right. He will use the latest technologies to help workers capture responses via phone, mail, Internet and — in the case of late responders — handheld devices out in the field. At the call centers, telephone operators will walk people through the census forms using automated questionnaire assistance screens.

But, unlike his counterparts at the Internal Revenue Service, Jackson does not have the ability to tweak the process year after year.

"We have kind of funny timelines," Jackson said. "We can't run out to CompUSA and get the best equipment out there."

He is issuing requests for proposals now for cutting-edge technologies that must work five years from now. He will choose the technologies two years before showtime. "In 2008, it will have to be running like we think it will run in the actual census," Jackson said.

Adequate support is essential for an IT deployment of such a short duration. "We don't have a learning-curve opportunity," Jackson said. "Unlike the FedEx guy who runs up to the door, we can't give [workers] training and pair them up with a seasoned representative. We have weeks instead of months."

The Arnold Jackson file

Position: Jackson is assistant director for decennial information technology and geographic systems at the Census Bureau.

Date of birth: Aug. 16, 1946.

Family: Jackson is married to Shirley Jackson, an associate professor at Howard University. His son is general counsel for the Florida Marlins, and his daughter is earning a combined degree at the University of Virginia — a master's in education and a bachelor's in psychology.

Favorite books: "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" by Stephen Covey and "The Power of Positive Thinking" by Norman Vincent Peale.

Favorite movies: "As Good As It Gets" and "Million Dollar Baby," about which he said, "I was speechless."

Interests: Family, church, R&B, light jazz, Afro-Cuban fusion music.

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