Census Works Through Handheld-Computer Glitches

Introducing new technology into old ways of doing business can be challenging at times. That's what the U.S. Census Bureau is finding out, Government Executive observed during a recent trip to a site where the bureau is testing wireless computers.

In Fayetteville, N.C., dozens of temporary census employees are testing how new handheld computers perform in the field to verify addresses and add new ones. During a training session that the bureau held last week, many of the trainees' handhelds froze as they tried to input or download information. The handhelds, which are linked to census databases, upload and download information via satellite and require about 10 to 15 seconds to respond to requests. During that time, trainees, thinking the computer was not operating properly, continued to tap their stylists on the touch-sensitive screens. That caused the handhelds to freeze.

The bureau is testing the use of the handheld computers in a nine-county region in and around Fayetteville as well as in Stockton, Calif., to check how well the devices help employees verify addresses. The handhelds, which are outfitted with GPS location devices, will replace the paper, pencils and maps that enumerators carried around during the prior censuses to locate addresses and to record answers from individuals who had not mailed in their census forms. Last year, Harris Corp. won the $600 million contract to supply the handhelds. Census hopes the handhelds will reduce costs for the decennial census (the 2010 census is estimated to cost $11.3 billion compared with $6.6 billion in 2000) and make the census more accurate.

This dress rehersal was conducted to uncover problems. And it did. Other problems with the handhelds included the device's fingerprint scanner, a security feature that prevents anyone other than the enumerator from accessing data on the handheld. But Beatrice Wolff, a 70-year-old retiree from Fayetteville, found the scanner didn't always work for her. She said the handheld's fingerprint reader repeatedly failed to recognize her fingerprint when she would try to turn the handheld on, causing the automatic shutdown feature to kick in. That denied Wolff from accessing her computer for 15 minutes before she could try again. "This [handheld] is giving me a lot of problems," she said.

Monique Moya, a crew leader overseeing eight people canvassing the Ft. Bragg military base in Fayetteville, said at any time as many as 25 percent of the eight listers she supervises were experiencing some kind of problem with the handheld computers in the field. Most problems were software related, she said, or because the satellite communications didn't provide enough bandwidth. "When the handhelds are working, it's great," she said. "But with this being the first rollout, all the bugs are showing up."

Harris will spend the next year trying to iron out those bugs. A Harris technician at the bureau's Fayetteville office, who was busy fielding calls trying to solve problems with the handhelds, declined an interview. The bureau and Harris have less than two years to fix the bugs before the bureau begins to verify and add new addresses nationwide.