Bureau of Labor Statistics sets plan to ensure data is the latest

Bureau of Labor Statistics sets plan to ensure data is the latest

Alex Petrie, BLS' remote-access manager, checks equipment in the LAN support center that lets employees dial in to the bureau's intranet for statistical data.

Quality control program will monitor equipment to determine if and when upgrades are needed

By Chris Driscoll

GCN Staff

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has set up a strict quality control program for its computer hardware and software to ensure that economists have stable and up-to-date equipment to track key economic statistics.

The statistical accuracy of BLS computers has become a crucial link in managing the nation's economy, said John Sink, director of survey processing for the bureau.

'We have a rigorous standards system,' Sink said. 'When we phase out older models, we phase in newer ones. We have someone whose job it is to keep up with software upgrades. You often don't want to implement every release, especially the point zero releases that tend to be full of bugs.'

Sink said the designated technical contact follows upward compatibility issues, keeps track of product reliability, and determines when or whether products should be phased out at BLS. Such decisions involve knowing a product's market position and whether the vendor will continue support after it is no longer sold.

'Once a recommendation is made to upgrade, the bureau begins testing to make sure the upgrade is compatible with our environment,' Sink said. 'When that is ascertained, a recommendation is made to the systems managers that the upgrade go through. They usually concur.'

Most system development is done in-house, Sink said. Although contract personnel occasionally help with projects, they are always led by bureau employees.

The most important part of Sink's job, he said, is to keep up with the bureau's users and know what they need to do their jobs. He holds frequent meetings with users before designing any new systems.

'We have computer-human interface guidelines,' Sink said. 'We had a task force put them together, relying on the literature in the field.'

The bureau tracks several categories of data, using a host of hardware and software products to automate and help with numerical analysis. Sink said BLS is responsible for five types of economic statistics:

' Employment, unemployment and labor force figures

' Consumer prices, producer prices, international prices and consumer expenditures

' Compensation and working conditions data such as employee benefits, the employment cost index, locality pay, national compensation, and occupational injuries, illnesses and fatalities

' Productivity figures

' Employment projections.

'Some of these programs make heavy use of secondary sources from other government agencies,' Sink said, such as the Bureau of Economic Analysis, the Customs Service, and the Energy and Transportation departments. But most of the data the bureau collects on its own or through cooperative agreements with state agencies.

The 2,000 BLS employees have Dell OptiPlex GX1p PCs with 166-, 200- and 450-MHz Pentium II processors, said Carol Vernon, BLS LAN manager.

The bureau chose OptiPlex because it offered stability at an affordable price, Vernon said.

'We didn't so much select on price, although of course price was important to us,' she said. 'We looked at technical specs and asked ourselves how reliable did we need the machines to be. The OptiPlex line has a lot of quality control and field testing built in. We see few hardware problems.'

Gotta go, gotta go

The bureau keeps about 3,500 PCs in service at any given time. 'We have a standard minimum configuration, and any PC that does not meet that configuration is phased out,' Vernon said.

The standard desktop PC operating system, Microsoft Windows 95, will soon give way to Windows NT Workstation 4.0 for greater security and control, Vernon said. Microsoft Office 97 is the standard office suite. The desktop PC statistical analysis software is SAS 6.2 for PCs and Unix from SAS Institute Inc. of Cary, N.C.

The bureau has a mixture of Sun Microsystems Ultra HPC 3000, 4000 and 5000 servers running Solaris, but 'we use the SunGard mainframe,' Sink said, referring to services outsourced to SunGard Data Systems Inc. of Wayne, Pa. The SunGard mainframe runs IBM OS/390.

Although the bureau builds most of its databases with Sybase Inc.'s database management system, it also uses IBM DB2 Universal Database for OS/390.

'For development we use [Sybase] PowerBuilder and Microsoft Visual Basic, Visual C++ and Visual J++,' Sink said. 'We have Microsoft Exchange e-mail, and we use FrontPage for some of our Web development.'

Budget officer Emily Berrington said the bureau spent a total of $19.2 million last year for computer equipment, supplies, services and personnel. Berrington estimated spending will reach $21.2 million in fiscal 2000.

BLS' systems work must be closely integrated with program work, Sink said.

'Sometimes it is difficult to draw a sharp boundary between work on a survey and work on a system that supports a survey program, because the process dictates what the systems are,' he said. 'The systems define how you carry out the process in detail. They just dovetail very closely.'

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