Census Bureau meets deadline to build address file for 2010 Census

Handheld computers performed well in checking and adding addresses used to mail census forms to the nation's 140 million households.

The Census Bureau has made progress on building an accurate database of addresses, but must resolve some remaining software issues and thoroughly test its systems before next years decennial count, according to the Government Accountability Office.

The Census Bureau is working to ensure its master address file, which is used to mail census forms to the nation's 140 million households, is complete and accurate, according to testimony filed by Robert Goldenkoff, director of strategic issues at GAO, with the House Subcommittee on Information Policy, Census and National Archives. But he acknowledged that despite the bureau's efforts, the recession and its impact on the housing market would make the task more difficult.

"On its face, it would appear that building an accurate address list would be a relatively straightforward task, given the obvious nature of many dwellings and the availability of postal addresses," Goldenkoff said. "Although these types of dwellings have always existed, the large number of foreclosures the nation has recently experienced, as well as the natural disasters that have hit the Gulf Coast and other regions, have likely increased the number of people doubling up, living in motels, tent cities, and other types of less conventional housing."

The address file and its digital mapping component called TIGER are considered crucial to the accuracy of the count. Shortly after the 2000 count, the bureau awarded Harris Corp. a $200 million contract to upgrade both the address file and TIGER. According to Goldenkoff, the bureau has made significant strides in updating the systems, but has not yet finalized a testing plan ahead of next year's count, jeopardizing the accuracy of the database.

"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. Bureau officials have repeatedly stated that the limited amount of time remaining will make completing all testing activities challenging," he said in filed testimony.

Harris also was awarded a $595 million contract to develop handheld computers for census workers who go door to door to count households. In March 2008, the bureau announced it would use the handhelds only for address canvassing, which took place from March to July. About 135,000 Census employees used the devices to compare the addresses from the address file with what they saw on the ground.

According to the bureau, the exercises generally were completed ahead of schedule because of lower-than-expected employee turnover. The handheld computers experienced glitches during the first month of use, including problems with transmissions, freeze-ups and issues with the GPS function, but Goldenkoff said the bureau quickly fixed the problems using software patches.

According to the bureau's preliminary analysis, address canvassing field operations cost $444 million, 25 percent more than the initial budget of $356 million. The bureau attributed the additional cost to a greater-than-expected workload and additional staff needed to complete the exercise on time.