IG Throws Flag on Census

The Census Bureau's ongoing address canvassing exercises have been a topic of public interest lately, because it will be the only opportunity for the bureau to make use of the handheld computers it <a href="http://www.nextgov.com/nextgov/ng_20080925_8186.php?oref=search">spent $800 million developing</a>.

The Census Bureau's ongoing address canvassing exercises have been a topic of public interest lately, because it will be the only opportunity for the bureau to make use of the handheld computers it spent $800 million developing.

While the early reviews on the handhelds themselves have been mixed, the Commerce Department's Inspector General recently issued a report that raises concerns about the failure of enumerators to follow the proper processes while using the devices during address canvassing, jeopardizing the accuracy of the count.

Specifically, users were not correctly using the GPS feature of the handhelds to manually verify addresses, a process called "map-spotting." From the report:

During address canvassing field observations, we found that some Census listers were not consistently following the procedures in their instruction manual. . . . We observed listers map-spotting addresses from their cars when they were instructed to collect a map spot at or near the main entrance of a structure -- usually the front door.

Despite instructions to traverse every road in an assignment area, some listers we observed completely skipped roads in rural areas when they assumed no houses existed on the road.

The IG warns that the failure to follow process correctly wastes the capability of the handhelds:

Failure of listers to correctly use the handheld's GPS capability -- a key component of Census's nearly $800 million field data collection automation contract -- jeopardizes Census's ability to ensure that living quarters are recorded within the correct census block. This accuracy is particularly important for redrawing congressional and state legislative districts.

This is an important point that is often missed when implementing an ambitious new IT project: If end users don't use the technology correctly, much of the benefit can be wasted. It's important to make sure users are trained and understand the technology so they realize the importance of following the established procedures. The report highlights instances where trainers failed to convey the proper instructions to enumerators, which is fairly unforgivable.

The IG concludes by suggesting that 100 percent address canvassing may not be necessary in 2020 and suggests the bureau examine other alternatives. No word on what those may be, but regardless it doesn't sound like there will be much use for those handhelds once these exercises are done.