‘We’ve all started calling it “the Senseless” ’
- By Will Carless, David Rodriguez, REVEAL
- Sep 24, 2020
This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
As they scramble to complete the census count weeks earlier than originally planned, Census Bureau workers across the country say their task is being undermined by the technology that was supposed to revolutionize the national count. It’s the latest twist in a troubled count that former Census Bureau directors cautioned in a recent letter “will result in seriously incomplete enumerations in many areas across our country.” An undercount could have enormous repercussions, from representation in Congress to the allocation of hundreds of billions of dollars in government funding.
The iPhone 8s that many of the more than 200,000 field workers were provided for inputting data don’t have the battery life to last an eight-hour shift, Census Bureau workers told Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. They describe the phones’ tailor-made app, designed by a company with a poor track record with the Census Bureau, as inefficient and buggy. Workers say that the app crashes frequently, sometimes more than once an hour, and that problems with usability have made them question whether the app was tested rigorously.
Georgia Hill, a former recruitment assistant for the census in Seattle who now works as a census response representative, said she showed up two months ago to train new recruits how to use the iPhone and iPad apps, only to be told that no devices were available to distribute and that none would be ready for weeks.
Interviews with several Census Bureau enumerators, who are tasked with going door to door to count residents, revealed an atmosphere of desperation and despondency.
As of Sept. 14, the Census Bureau reports it has counted 91.8% of housing units, meaning enumerators may have only a few days left to try to count the roughly 11 million that remain. A federal judge in California ordered the Trump administration to stop winding down in-person counting efforts until Sept. 17, when a federal district court will hear a request by the National Urban League to continue the count through the end of October.
“We’ve all started calling it ‘The Senseless,’ ” said Hill, who has worked at the bureau’s Seattle office for more than a year. “What I have been telling people who I’m training is, ‘You really have to have zero expectations if you want to work here.’ ”
The Census Bureau responded to queries with a written statement that reads in part: “The Census Bureau devices have performed beyond expectation, resulting in higher than anticipated productivity. All indications at this point are that our devices have been successful. It is important to note the Census Bureau has hired over 300,000 temporary staff and we are on our way to a complete and accurate census.”
Pegasystems, the company that built the troubled census app, also designed an online response system for the Census Bureau. But as Reveal reported earlier this year, the bureau abandoned Pegasystems’ platform a few weeks before the census launched over concerns that it might not be able to handle a flood of simultaneous responses. The last-minute switch to an in-house system raised concerns among census watchdogs, including the Government Accountability Office, which examines federal spending.
In March, Reveal filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies of Pegasystems’ contracts with the bureau, which would show how much taxpayer money the company has received. The bureau has yet to respond to that request. Reuters has reported that altogether, Pegasystems’ contract with the bureau ultimately will cost about $167.3 million.
“We believe the app has significantly helped the organization to efficiently capture data in the field under unprecedented circumstances,” Lisa Pintchman, Pegasystems’ vice president of corporate communications, wrote in a statement to Reveal. “The Census has consistently given Pega positive feedback on the app’s performance.”
Positive feedback is not what census workers gave when they spoke with Reveal. Many did not want to use their full names because they still work for the Census Bureau and fear retaliation.
Jazmin, who has worked as an enumerator in rural Oklahoma for six weeks, exemplifies the sort of person the Census Bureau relies on in its final months of door knocking to count people who haven’t yet filled out their census form. Jazmin works by day for a service that provides hot meals for senior citizens. She said she signed up with the census to ensure the counties she works in are properly counted and can receive their fair share of federal funding.
“I see it as my duty to prove to the state and the feds that we need extra money, and that comes from an accurate count of senior citizens in this area,” Jazmin said. “I’ve worked with census data very closely, and I know it’s not accurate. Data from 2010 just isn’t representative of Oklahoma in 2020.”
But Jazmin said she’s losing patience with the work, which she said is plagued by inefficient technology.
For example, she said, at the beginning of each work shift, the app she uses on her Census Bureau-issued iPhone creates a list of addresses that the worker is supposed to visit, in order, to help residents fill out their forms. But that list isn’t organized with any geographic logic and ping-pongs workers across their area seemingly at random, Jazmin and several other enumerators said. On her first weekend working for the census, Jazmin said she ended up driving more than 125 miles.
“I quickly gave up on that list,” she said.
Instead, Jazmin and her husband, who is also an enumerator, say they ignore the order of the list they’re given and pull up Google Maps on their personal phones. Then they plug in the addresses and figure out a travel plan that makes sense – going one neighborhood or town at a time and completing as many homes as possible in each location.
The Census Bureau, in its statement, said enumerators simply don’t understand how well the system is designed. “Assignment order is based on efficiency algorithms that are not always clear to the enumerator,” the statement reads. “These algorithms use data on enumerator’s location, the best time to contact the household, and other criteria.”
Anne Marie Piper, an associate professor in informatics at the University of California, Irvine, said it is best practice for routing algorithms to be used in a way that is clear and makes sense to the people using them.
“However well-intentioned it is, if the logic of the algorithm is completely hidden from the enumerator, rather than used in a way to help them make smart decisions, then that can cause problems,” Piper said.
Jazmin said the issues with the app deepen once she arrives at someone’s door.
Once she’s at a residence, she said, she’s supposed to work through the census questionnaire app on her phone with each respondent. That process is a study in frustration, she said. Census workers can’t cut and paste inside the app, so they have to manually type everything for each unit in multi-unit buildings and for each individual in that unit. And the script that workers are supposed to follow in the app makes them sound “robotic,” multiple enumerators told us.
“I don’t think there was any testing of the app in the field at all,” Jazmin said. “It’s so frustrating.”
Colin Miles Maclay, executive director of the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California, said some of the frustrations workers have encountered may have been intentionally designed into the app, introducing “friction” that slows down enumerators and ensures they fill out the forms properly, he said.
The Census Bureau said that the app was “fielded and tested extensively” during an “end-to-end” test in Rhode Island in 2018 and that it “continues to function efficiently and effectively as designed in the 2020 Census.”
But in suburban Tampa, Florida, an enumerator named Lynn says she faced frequent technological meltdowns.
Lynn sent Reveal a screenshot of what she dubbed “the pink box of death,” an error message in the census app that appears as a pink rectangle and tells the user to “consult your system administrator.” She said the error incessantly froze her iPhone in the middle of interviews, sometimes multiple times an hour. So, often as annoyed residents looked on, she would have to reboot her phone and start over.
One former census enumerator says this error message incessantly froze her iPhone in the middle of interviews. CREDIT: Courtesy of Lynn, last name withheld.
“Meanwhile, I stood there awkwardly making small talk with whoever just made the mistake of opening their front door to me,” Lynn said. “I signed up to be an enumerator because I thought the work was important. I’d gladly do it again, but only if they get their act together.”
Lynn quit her enumerator job last month. She said failures of the app had left her increasingly worried about her safety.
Like multiple census workers interviewed for this story, Lynn said glitches with the app can make enumerators vulnerable. Enumerators can write notes in the app describing a respondent who is unfriendly, rude, “anti-government” or threatening, but those notes aren’t always visible to the next enumerator who attempts to collect data from the same resident.
“That was the scary thing,” Lynn said. “The first time, when you’d stumble upon someone who seemed angry or odd, you could just say, ‘Thank you for your time,’ and walk away. They weren’t likely to follow you. They didn’t want to interact. But the second time, those guys felt like they’d already said no, and they were really unhappy about the second knock. Why send enumerators back to those addresses again and again?”
The Census Bureau responded that enumerators have the option to mark cases as “dangerous,” something enumerators confirmed.
“These dangerous addresses are flagged on the maps used by enumerators to view the location of their cases and enumerators are trained to avoid these addresses,” the bureau said.
But several census workers described confusion about when they should mark locations as dangerous, and others said they couldn’t view notes about why an address had been flagged.
“Important notes on things like Dangerous Addresses would not show up for the next person that attempts cases,” Alex, an enumerator from Pleasanton, California, wrote by email. “For example, I had one where a dog attacked me. Those notes did not populate for the next person, who was also attacked by a dog. When it came back to me for the third time I was able to see their notes but not mine.”
Several workers said the census app appears to have doomed the count.
“It’s like it was designed to be clunky,” Lynn said. “It became clear that this thing was designed to fail.”
Enumerator Daman Auvenshine from suburban Detroit expressed frustration with every aspect of the app’s usability.
“The interface makes no sense, their options are not intuitive for even advanced computer users let alone the average enumerator, there are extra unnecessary steps built in that add minutes to each interview,” he wrote in an email. “The census, in addition to being cut short, is being run like a 5th grade school activity rather than a government endeavor. It disgusts me that my taxpayer dollars are funding it.”
Maclay, of USC, said he wasn’t surprised that the Census Bureau’s new technologies have had teething problems.
“The (Trump) administration and Congress have been undermining the census for years,” he said. “They gave too little funding, too late, to do proper testing.”
Do you work for the U.S. Census Bureau? We and members of our Seeing 2020 reporting collaboration want to hear about your experience. We will never publish your name or any identifying information without your consent.
This story was edited by Esther Kaplan and Sumi Aggarwal and copy edited by Nikki Frick.