Thousands fill out census forms online, surprising bureau officials

Thousands fill out census forms online, surprising bureau officials

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

Thousands of Americans are opting for cyberspace over postal mail to send their completed decennial count questionnaires, although the Census Bureau hasn't promoted that method.

People began receiving the 2000 Census forms in the mail this month, and within days at least 20,000 of them had filled out the short forms online, officials said.

Five out of six households'randomly selected'received the short forms. Long forms, which request more detailed personal information, can't be completed online for security reasons, officials said.

'There were some security and technology issues with doing the long form online,' said Rick Swartz, acting Census chief information officer. 'The short form also fits on a single Internet Hypertext Markup Language page.'

By March 13, about 1,200 forms'most of them submitted by users in rural areas where questionnaires were hand-delivered a week earlier'had been completed online, Swartz said. That number soared as residents across the country received forms in the mail, he said.

Focus on mail

Officials expect 5 million to 7 million respondents to complete forms online, said John Thompson, associate Census director.

The bureau's focus is on collecting information from mailed paper forms [GCN, Feb. 7, Page 1]

Thompson said the use of the Internet is a learning experience.

'The methodology this year was geared toward delivery and mail-back,' Thompson said. 'We have to do it to learn about it, and we are learning about it as we go.'

Swartz said he has been surprised at the public's response to the bureau's tentative foray into electronic data gathering.

'With all the hacking, we didn't want to make it our primary way of collecting data,' he said. 'This is new technology.'

Thompson said the bureau has to be vigilant against cyberattacks. 'It is a very popular Web site,' he said. 'We have to constantly protect it.'

Census also considered security for the short form. But information does not stay on a system accessible from outside the bureau for more than 15 minutes, Swartz said.

Users go through one firewall to take part in the national survey, and the information is encrypted for the short time it sits on that server, he said.

The information is automatically removed from the original server, he said.

It takes about five minutes to fill out the form, which can be accessed at

A link to the form is also provided at the Census Bureau's main Web site, at

To fill out the questionnaire, users enter the 22-digit number on their paper form to identify their household, Swartz said. As soon as a user enters the site, the form goes into encryption mode, he said. After completing the questionnaire, a user has one chance to verify the information before submitting it.

The hardware that Census is using for the online questionnaires can handle up to 4 million users a day, Swartz said. The six SGI Origin2000 servers run Irix 6.5 ASE, SGI's version of Unix.

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