Mixed Reviews on Census Handhelds

Gautham Nagesh files the following update:

Earlier this week I asked you for any anecdotes you may have heard about the handheld computers currently being used by Census Bureau enumerators to verify addresses ahead of next year's decennial count. I'm happy to say I've received several responses. But the reviews are decidedly mixed.

Bill, a retired national account manager for the IRS, sent us this positive report:

Yesterday, I asked a census worker in our Richardson neighborhood how her handheld computer was working and she gave it good marks. She indicated that she hadn't had any problems. She also indicated that she was aware that there had been some glitches reported but that by and large things seemed to be working fine.

However, reader Mike Macedonia sent us this alternate take:

I had to help a lost Census worker in my neighborhood near Orlando last week. He showed me a handheld with a map and positioning system. He was looking for a street that the map indicated was in my neighborhood. I pulled out my Blackberry and pulled up Google maps which showed the road correctly in the adjacent neighborhood.

Google maps was highly detailed and clear and you could bring up the pictures of homes from its imagery mode. His maps were pretty poor quality with low detail so I could see why he was lost.

Mike added that he was surprised at how lousy the maps were, but understands that the slow pace of government acquisitions makes it very hard for feds to keep up with the latest commercial technologies.

Finally, Tech Insider blogger Bob Charette passed along this comment that came into his blog, The Risk Factor:

I've been working IT for the Census Bureau for a short time, and the handheld situation looks grim. The devices are unreliable and buggy. In particular we've seen lots of problems with the fingerprint scanner. Many field workers, and especially older workers, who have arthritis or worn fingerprints, often find themselves locked out of the device. The sparse wireless coverage (with no roaming!) provided by Sprint is useless in remote areas (and even many non-remote towns), forcing workers to locate land lines to transmit from. And then the land line transmissions have problems and are slower. There are scores of other problems -- including the help desk support software that is frequently off-line.

Having seen the handhelds myself, I can confirm that the screen is decidedly less impressive than that of an iPhone or Blackberry, but those devices were developed with enormous budgets to be produced on a much larger scale, so the comparison is probably a bit misguided. (Though that hasn't stopped some lawmakers from making it).

However, one lesson that feds will hopefully take from the handheld effort is that it's not always necessary to reinvent the wheel. Most of the tasks government tries to accomplish with technology are common to the private sector. While the Census handhelds include technology like the fingerprint scanner that is not commonly available, it also appears that those features also are not working as planned. Would the bureau have been better off purchasing some sort of commercial PDA with GPS and Google Maps technology and customizing it for their purposes? It's impossible to say, but hopefully next time they will at least consider the possibility that the solution they want is already out there.