Census will test iPaq handhelds for 2010 count

In Queens, N.Y., and Georgia, the bureau's enumerators will test drive iPaqs running a homegrown data-gathering application.

'What can a temporary enumerator'someone who works for us only a month or so and in some cases is trained maybe two or three days'tolerate?'

' Census' Arnold A. Jackson

The Census Bureau is laying plans for the 2010 Census that include the use of as many as 500,000 handheld computers by census takers.

Since many of the units will be used by rapidly trained temporary employees, or enumerators, the bureau wants to make sure the systems are easy to use, said Arnold A. Jackson, assistant director for the decennial census.

Census officials also plan extensive testing of handheld units to determine if they can stand up to the rigors of outdoor use, he said. The bureau conducted small tests of handheld computers in Virginia and Delaware last year.

The bureau expects to spend about $50 million on its handheld purchase for 2010. Census is still planning the procurement, and the specifications of the contract will change over the next few years to accommodate technological improvements and needs identified during testing, Jackson said.

By entering census data via handheld versus on paper, Census anticipates a dramatic drop in errors and an increase in the speed of processing information.

Now, enumerators take pencil notes on large paper forms called registers. Each register is 'like a big tablet,' Jackson said.

For its tests, the bureau bought 3,200 Hewlett-Packard iPaq 3950 handheld PCs for $988,000. Enumerators will use the units next year in large-scale tests in Queens, N.Y., and rural Georgia.

The tests will run from mid-April to late July. The Georgia test'in Tift, Thomas and Colquitt counties'will cover an estimated population of about 123,000, and the Queens test will cover about 442,000 people.

The iPaqs will be equipped with removable modems and Global Positioning System receivers. Enumerators will use the modems to upload data to the bureau's databases each day. They will also download their assigned destinations. The enumerators will receive directional information via the GPS receivers.

The units to be used in the 2004 test will have application software written for Microsoft Windows CE .Net by the bureau's Technology Management Office.

'One of the things we hope to see over time is that the [GPS receiver] and the modem are integrated into the device, though even now it is pretty handy,' Jackson said, as he displayed a unit in his office at the bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md. 'We really want as few pieces as possible.'

Census officials are confident that industry can meet the bureau's technological requirements. 'We are pretty sure the technology will be there,' he said. 'The issue for the Census in the decennial census is what can a temporary enumerator'someone who works for us only a month or so and in some cases is trained maybe two or three days'tolerate and operate effectively.'

In the Queens and Georgia tests, the bureau will send 800 to 1,000 enumerators into the field to test handhelds. 'Part of what we have to find out is: What is the breakage rate?' Jackson said.

The handhelds must also be weather-resistant. In the solicitation for the 3,200 units the bureau bought, officials specified that the units must function in all weather conditions.

During the tests, the bureau also wants to gather information about the ergonomics and physical demands of holding the units, Jackson said. 'How long before looking at a 2-inch by 3-inch screen becomes annoying? Even using the stylus, the experts tell us that after a while fatigue can be introduced and one is not even as accurate in using the stylus,' Jackson said.

The handheld computers' GPS capabilities offer potentially rich benefits, he said. The bureau plans to have enumerators update Census' Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing, or Tiger, database via their handhelds.

The Tiger files are not accurate to GPS levels yet. The bureau is revising its Tiger files across the country to update them to an accuracy of within 7.6 meters of the centerline of roads and streets.

'The GPS is accurate to within 3 meters, so the mathematicians have figured out that the combined error rate gives us the kind of tolerance necessary to give a very accurate reading on where [a dwelling] is and where an enumerator is,' Jackson said.

Census plans to test different methods of providing navigation information to enumerators, including turn-by-turn instructions and maps.

The bureau has not decided how it will download data to the handhelds for the 2010 Census.

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