Edwin Wagner Jr. | More than a numbers game

Interview with Edwin Wagner Jr., U.S. Census Bureau

Edwin Wagner, Census Bureau

Rick Steele

Edwin Wagner Jr. leads the project management office that plans to revolutionize how the Census Bureau collects data for its once-a-decade population count. Its most visible aspect will be putting mobile computers in the hands of up to 500,000 field workers under a $600 million contract with Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Fla. The automated field data collection also promises to improve census efficiency and accuracy.

Wagner worked his first census in 1980, managing the five-state Philadelphia region. He's attracted to the challenge of hiring half a million people nationwide, setting up 500 offices within a short timeframe and conducting all census operations by a certain date.

'The Census gets in your blood. I think it is an incredible challenge,' he said. 'We don't have the luxury to slide the schedule by one month or a year.'

GCN: How will the 2010 Census be different from past decennials?

Wagner: The 2010 Census will expand the use of automation over anything we've ever done. For the first time, we're putting IT into the hands of enumerators doing their jobs on the streets. Enumerators will use IT for address canvassing, to update our address file and follow up with individuals who did not answer mailed questionnaires.

GCN: How will enumerators use technology?

Wagner: Each enumerator is assigned a geographic area or a series of blocks to canvas. They determine if we have all the living quarters on our address list'or, if not, add them'and the mailing address so we can mail the Census questionnaire.
On their handheld computer, the address will be displayed, and the computer will walk them through a short series of questions. This will also help us with quality. We're also going to be able to add streets and correct street information on the maps electronically. Say we go out in a growing area and find a new development'we can now, using our handheld, which will have global positioning system capability, add streets with accurate latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates.

This will tie into the Master Address File/Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing system, for which Harris Corp. is realigning streets to have latitudinal and longitudinal accuracy within 7.6 meters. We'll use the realigned files to produce the maps that go on the handhelds. The enumerators will not only be able to add streets accurately but also collect the geographic coordinates of each residential structure.

The second operation is our nonresponse follow-up operation. We [initially] mail out questionnaires and hope that people send them back. If not, we will interview them to collect their census data.

Here is where we can obtain a major improvement simply because we've introduced this technology. In the past, when we did paper questionnaires and paper control lists, we generated nonresponse assignments for the enumerators.

[After] we cut that list, we still received completed questionnaires back in the mail. We had no effective way to update assignments for our enumerators, which could number 500,000. Because a lot of people would say 'I mailed it in,' we told enumerators to just interview them anyway.

With the handheld and the use of wireless transmission, we can update their assignment list and get these late mail returns off of the nonresponse enumerators' assignment. This will reduce the number of cases'and it's in the millions'where we conducted a personal interview and got the mail return late. That's a huge driver for why we want to put technology into the hands of enumerators.

GCN: How will Census secure that data?

Wagner: The handheld will be registered to an enumerator, and we're using biometrics, a fingerprint reader, to control access to that handheld. It has a screen saver set to lock up if inactive for a period of time. Only the enumerator whose fingerprint can be read will have access to that device. The data stored on the handheld is encrypted. We haven't determined the precise parameters yet, but once we get confirmation that the data has been successfully received at a secure data center, the data will be removed from the handheld.

GCN: Why did you choose biometrics?

Wagner: Harris, the winning FDCA vendor, proposed the biometrics as the solution that would best meet our needs. Not only does biometrics meet our security requirements, it is very simple. We found in 2004 tests that a major component of our help-desk calls was from enumerators needing to reset passwords. We hire a lot of people temporarily, and they may have limited IT experience. You better make this simple or you'll be spending a lot of time and effort, and therefore money, providing support.

GCN: How is Census fixing the problems that the Government Accountability Office cited about growing costs and risks with the reliability of mobile computing devices?

Wagner: What we are doing for the census is entirely different than what we did for tests in 2004 and earlier this year. For those tests, we bought a commercial PDA and developed our own software and tried to run it on those PDAs. There were limitations on our in-house development, and the commercial hardware wasn't designed for the things we're trying to do.

The handheld device that we're using for 2010 has been specifically designed based on our requirements. We really believe our requirements will eliminate the problems.
We conducted tests near the Census Bureau. We didn't knock on any doors, but we scripted some scenarios of a typical enumerator. We went out and changed and added streets, added new addresses, corrected erroneous addresses.

GCN: Where do you keep the data you collect'on Census' infrastructure or with contractors?

Wagner: As data is collected through the FDCA project, it will move to the secure data center, then through the Decennial Response Integration System managed at a separate facility, and into [the] Census Bureau headquarters processing system behind our firewalls. It's resting in the DRIS system in a database until we move it, and it's encrypted while it's in storage in FDCA data centers.

GCN: Has Census updated its infrastructure to accommodate the increased automation?

Wagner: Census is migrating to a more consolidated infrastructure. That's not being driven by the decennial but by policy to make the Census Bureau more efficient and maintain good security. They're moving toward blade servers running Red Hat Linux and Microsoft Windows, and implementing an enterprise storage area network.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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