Counting on innovation for census 2020

The woman leading the 2020 enumeration of the American population says well-laid plans will be the key to success.

Photo courtesy: U.S. Bureau of the Census

The Census Bureau's Lisa Blumerman says the agency is "bringing the decennial census into the 21st century."

For the Census Bureau, the plan's the thing, and it likely won't change much.

"We're bringing the decennial census into the 21st century," Lisa Blumerman, associate director for Decennial Census Programs, told FCW in a Jan. 15 conversation. "This census is going to be like no other census."

At the start of a critical year, Blumerman expressed confidence in the bureau's ambitious, technology-laden plan for the 2020 enumeration, calling it a firm foundation for controlled innovation.

The Government Accountability Office has called on the bureau to accelerate crucial build-or-buy decisions to ensure that all technology tools are online for end-to-end testing, but Blumerman defended the bureau's timeline.

"There's risk any time you change a plan," she said, adding that Census officials are due to start making those decisions in mid-March, with most key choices finalized before end-to-end testing starts in 2017 and ramps up in 2018.

"That is the right timing for us," Blumerman said.

Under a plan aimed at modernization, people will be able to respond via the Internet and tests of technological solutions are being layered into every step of the process, she added.

Furthermore, the bureau has already run tests involving census takers using iOS and Android mobile devices. The mobile strategy won't be finalized until October 2017, but Blumerman said a device-as-a-service model, in which a contractor is responsible for the hardware and Census supplies the mobile applications, "appears to have great promise" for 2020.

Contractors will have opportunities to get involved with in the census well before then, though. The 2020 Census Questionnaire Assistance contract, which covers support for online respondents, is due to be awarded in June.

A final request for proposals for the 2020 Census Integrated Communications contract, which deals with Internet-enabled outreach and advertising, should be released by the end of the month and is scheduled for award in August.

And then there's the Census Enterprise Data Collection and Processing program. GAO has expressed concerns about the 14-project modernization initiative, but Blumerman said that if it's done right, CEDCaP will fold data from all the bureau's surveys under one IT architecture. Census conducts more than 100 surveys each year.

"CEDCaP is about good government at its very best," Blumerman said. "We're on track with it."

Census' next quarterly Program Management Review, on Jan. 22, will focus on solutions architecture, but Blumerman stressed the fact that Census is not flying blind. The bureau has long had a vision of how the 2020 enumeration will come together.

"We already have a draft solutions architecture," she said. "It's not that we're sitting around saying that we don't know what the infrastructure will look like. That's crazy."

Blumerman said the bureau's plans are solid, and at least for fiscal 2016, Census is receiving enough funding to get the job done.

But the planning never ends. "We're already starting to think about what the 2030 census might look like," she said.