Performance anxiety hovers over 2010 census

The Census Bureau could be going into the first operational phases of the 2010 census next year without adequate data on the performance of handheld computers that will be crucial in developing detailed address lists used in the decennial head count, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Tests conducted last year in a dress rehearsal of the census revealed performance problems with devices developed by Harris Corp. for the Field Data Collection Automation Program. But given the tight time frame for beginning field work, the bureau has decided to go ahead with plans to use the devices to address canvassing scheduled to begin in 2009. GAO auditors did not fault the decision but concluded that the bureau needs better metrics to assess the performance of the FDCA.

'Technology issues and the bureau's efforts to redesign FDCA have significant implications for address canvassing,' GAO concluded in its report, titled '2010 Census: Census Bureau's Decision to Continue with Handheld Computers for Address Canvassing Makes Planning and Testing Critical.' 'Among these are ensuring that FDCA solutions for technical issues identified in the dress rehearsal are tested, the help desk adequately supports field staff, and a solution for conducting address canvassing in large blocks is tested.'

The bureau had developed a testing plan that includes limited field testing, but it does not specify how the readiness of the technical solutions will be decided.

'Without specifying the basis and time frame for determination of readiness of the FDCA address canvassing solution, the bureau will not have the needed assurance that the HHCs will meet its operational needs,' GAO said. To achieve this, the bureau needs a dashboard application to enable monitoring of the performance of handheld computers. 'Although the Bureau field tested the HHCs in its dress rehearsal last year, it did not then have in place a dashboard for monitoring field operations. The bureau's proposal for a limited field operations test this fall provides the last opportunity to use such a dashboard in census-like conditions.'

The GAO recommended that the bureau:
  • Specify the basis for determining the readiness of the FDCA solution for address canvassing and when and how this determination will occur'when the Bureau would say that the contractor's solution meets its operational needs.
  • Specify how data collection in large blocks will be conducted in parallel with the address canvassing operation, and how this dual-track will be tested in order to ensure it will function as planned.
  • Specify the benchmarks for measures used to evaluate the HHC performance during address canvassing.
  • Use the dashboard to monitor performance of the HHCs in the operational field test of address canvassing.

Efforts to bring new technology into the first census of the 21st century have been troubled. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez in April told Congress that the bureau was abandoning plans to use handheld computers in the collection of data during the enumeration in 2010. But it was too late to abandon handheld devices incorporating Global Positioning System data for the preliminary address canvassing that will take place in 2009.

The technology was tested in the 2007-2008 dress rehearsals, and although the handheld devices were used to collect address information for 98.7 percent of housing units visited and to map information for 97.4 percent, there also were performance problems.

'The help desk logs, for example, revealed that listers most frequently reported issues with transmission, the device freezing, mapspotting (collecting mapping coordinates), and working with large blocks (geographic areas with large numbers of housing units more often found in urban areas),' GAO reported. 'One factor that may have contributed to these performance problems was a compressed schedule that did not allow for thorough testing before the dress rehearsal.'

A technical glitch also resulted in some lost data, when 5,429 records were lost because multiple computers had been given the same identification number. When a device transmitted information, it overwrote earlier data from a device with the same number, wiping out the information. 'According to bureau officials, this problem was identified and corrected during the address canvassing dress rehearsal,' GAO said.

Performance was uneven and was worst in congested areas, GAO found. 'Data show staff productivity exceeded expectations in rural areas but did not meet bureau expectations in urban/suburban areas, which represent a greater share of housing units across the nation. For example, the reported productivity for urban/suburban areas was more than 10 percent lower than the target and this difference will have implications for the costs of the address canvassing operation.'

The Census Bureau had no substantive disagreements with GAO's conclusions or recommendations and responded that it already had taken steps to address the problems identified.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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