Census prepares IT for 2010

Disasters, disease could complicate the count

Preparations for the 2010 census have been complicated by the economic challenges and natural disasters since the last census, and the final count could be further complicated by the H1N1 flu epidemic. But the use of handheld computers, Global Positioning System data and a geographic information system mapping method have aided the development of the Master Address File of more than 140 million addresses that will underpin the decennial count.

The Census Bureau has redesigned databases in its Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing System (TIGER), Census Director Robert M. Groves told the House Oversight and Government Reform's Information Policy, Census, and National Archives Subcommittee last week.

“Prior to the redesign, MAF and TIGER data were stored in county-level files,” Groves said at the hearing held Oct. 21. “Now that the data are kept nationally, we can more easily match and update across counties.”

The bureau also has improved the accuracy of its data with additional spatial data. “This, along with the collection of GPS coordinates in address canvassing, will result in a more accurate representation of the location of addresses,” Groves said.

But although the job of finalizing and verifying address lists is well under way and the Census Bureau is in the process of opening an additional 344 local offices in preparation for the final count next year, some key testing remains to be done on the IT systems that will support the count, the Government Accountability Office found.

“If the bureau’s address list and maps are inaccurate, people can be missed, counted more than once, or included in the wrong location,” said Robert Goldenkoff, GAO director of strategic issues. The census figures are used for, among other things, apportioning more than $400 billion in federal tax dollars to state and local communities. “Given the importance of MAF/TIGER to an accurate census, it is critical that the bureau ensure this system is thoroughly tested.”

Given the growing size and complexity of the census, electronic information systems are likely to become more critical in the gathering and handling of the data.

“Rigorous planning and perhaps even a fundamental re-examination of the census might be required because the current approach to the national enumeration may no longer be financially sustainable,” Goldenkoff said. “Indeed, the cost of conducting the census has, on average, doubled each decade since 1970 in constant 2010 dollars. If that rate of cost escalation continues into 2020, the nation could be looking at a $30 billion census.”

Challenges faced in the current census include the recent wave of mortgage foreclosures on residential property that has displaced many people, as well as disasters such as hurricanes that have struck the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Katrina alone left an estimated 300,000 homes destroyed or uninhabitable, forcing residents to move permanently or relocate into temporary housing.

The Census Bureau has responded with the use of technology such as handheld computers for its canvassers, who are charged with visiting every residential address to verify accuracy. The computers were used not only to record and transmit address data but also to receive and apply GPS data to the addresses.

The GAO added the 2010 census to its list of high-risk programs in 2008 because of questions about the reliability of the handheld computers and inadequate management of the IT systems. But the bureau has made progress in getting the programs back on track. The canvass was completed between March and July of this year, and early problems with GPS systems were quickly resolved and the bureau monitored handheld performance.

But testing of the mapping system that will provide final data for the enumeration has lagged, GAO said. Plans for only five of eight system tests for the MAF and TIGER system have been finalized, and only three tests have been completed. 

“Given the importance of MAF/TIGER to establishing where to count U.S. residents, it is critical that the bureau ensure this system is thoroughly tested,” Goldenkoff said. “Bureau officials have repeatedly stated that the limited amount of time remaining will make completing all testing activities challenging.”

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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