Show of hands

Census tests biometric PDAs for large-scale use in 2010

GO MOBILE: Ed Wagner, project manager at the Census Bureau's Field Data Collection Automation project, displays one of the new handheld mobile devices.

Rick Steele

This device has a lot of capabilities that recognize the realities of what it's like to take a census. ' Ed Wagner, Census Bureau

Dress rehearsals usually mean sweaty palms, bright lights and one last chance to make sure the actors know their lines.

And it's no different for the Census Bureau, which this month began dress rehearsals for its big show: the 2010 census.

About 760 census workers in two areas ' San Joaquin County, Calif., and a nine-county area around Fayetteville, N.C. ' are using mobile handheld devices to collect data and update addresses. The test started May 7 and will continue through the end of June.

Although it's still early, Ed Wagner, project manager at Census' Field Data Collection Automation project, said the devices are performing well thus far. 'We're not expecting perfection the first time out of the box.'

The 2010 census will be one of the largest ' if not the largest ' deployment of biometric handheld devices for a single project, Wagner said.

Harris, the prime contractor for the project, won the five-year, $600 million contract last year. Harris will be the systems integrator and handle program management. Harris' team includes Accenture, which is helping to develop some of the touch-screen applications; High Tech Computer, which is manufacturing the devices; Oracle, which is developing the database management applications; and Unisys, which is providing help-desk support and putting together the data processing center.

The handheld PCs are specifically designed for census work, Wagner said. Bells and whistles have been kept to a bare minimum.

It's not a commercial product, which Census used in earlier tests, Wagner said. 'This device has a lot of capabilities that recognize the realities of what it's like to take a census.'

For instance, enumerators must work outside, so the devices need a screen that's bright enough to read in broad daylight. 'It's about 50 percent brighter than a typical PDA screen,' Wagner said.

And the 500,000 enumerators will use the personal digital assistants cover the entire spectrum of computer literacy, from twenty-somethings raised on instant messaging to 80-year-olds who find call waiting a challenge.

One feature that will help accommodate the widely varying computer skills of the enumerators is the biometric security built into each PDA.

'In 2004, about 40 percent of the calls to the help desk were to reset passwords,' Wagner said. The PDA's biometric security does away with passwords completely. At training, each enumerator is registered to a handheld computer equipped with fingerprint scanning and verification capability from AuthenTec. The user registers two fingerprints with the biometric reader, so that if one finger has a cut or a bandage, the PDA can allow access through another finger.

The biometric device is 99 percent effective within five swipes of a user's finger, Wagner said. 'Compare that 99 percent effectiveness to the 40 percent we had to reset passwords for. And you can't take somebody's finger with you if you steal the PDA.'

Enumerators will transmit data via Sprint's Code Division Multiple Access wireless
technology. The device is enabled for data transmission via analog telephone lines, but Wagner said he expects that 80 percent of the enumerators will be able to transmit wirelessly.

All the data is stored securely on the device using 128-bit encryption and complies with Federal Information Processing Standard 140-2. The bureau is incorporating a second authentication factor for follow-up work in late April or May 2008. The system will prompt the employee with a question only that person will know the answer to, 'something like, 'What was your high-school mascot?' ' Wagner said.

Close to the vest

Census data also has to comply with Title 13 privacy standards, which are strict, to put it mildly. Section 9 of Title 13 of the U.S. Code protects for 72 years the confidentiality of all information collected by the bureau, with penalties of as many as five years in prison and fines of as much as $250,000 for wrongful disclosure.

The data must be highly secure and highly accurate. Census data is used to determine everything from voting districts to the funding for schools. A house listed on the left side of the street instead of the right side could affect a voting district.

All the map and address data is stored on a secure digital card in encrypted format. The enumerator will transmit the information to the data center. Once the data center knows it has received readable data, the data on the card is erased, and the enumerator can continue working.

'It's been a tremendous efficiency for us,' Wagner said. Census can manage staff and make assignment changes 'pretty much on the fly.'

Most of the enumerators are already familiar with the areas they'll be canvassing.
The bureau deliberately made the devices a bit frumpy. The PDAs can't play music and don't have cell phone capabilities. Users can't surf the Web or play games with them. The devices are too bulky to fit neatly into a shirt pocket.

'In fact, the only thing that will run on it ' the way it's configured ' are Census applications,' Wagner said. If Census had made the devices too attractive, they might start disappearing, he said.

The bureau hasn't yet decided what to do with the 500,000 devices after the 2010 census is complete. 'I'm not sure anybody would want one,' Wagner said. The scrubbed devices might be reconfigured for another government agency, such as a local planning commission that needs to keep its maps up-to-date.

Census officials estimate that the handheld devices will save the bureau more than $1 billion. Some of the savings come from printing costs ' the bureau won't have to print paper address books, millions of paper maps and about 40 million paper questionnaires.

Reader Comments

Tue, Mar 17, 2009 Jim Waits Bato Roue, La. 70806

I was issued an HHC almost two weeks ago. It's full of bugs and glitches. I've started a list. I've also started a Yahoo Group for enumerators to discuss problems with the devices, and proper use help among members. Reply with an email address and I will send a pre-approved membership invitation. Sincerely, Jim Waits

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