US Census Bureau takes stock of its handhelds

A dress rehearsal will test the use of the devices for collecting census data

About 1,400 US Census Bureau workers carrying wireless handhelds began fanning out across Fayetteville, North Carolina, and Stockton, California, this week in a dress rehearsal to see how the devices will be used during the 2010 census.

Initially, the workers equipped with the handhelds are verifying street addresses and adding or deleting the locations of homes that have been built or removed since the previous census. During the actual census, workers will also use the devices to enter answers to questions during personal visits to the homes of residents who haven’t sent in written questionnaires.

The handhelds are equipped with GPS mapping technology and biometric security features, and they can transmit information to central databases via wireless connections. Eventually, 500,000 census-takers are expected to use the devices, says Mike Murray, vice president of the census programme at Harris Corporation, the lead systems integrator on the project.

The Census Bureau signed a contract for the project with a team of vendors, led by Florida-based Harris, last year. The agency plans to spend US$600 million (NZ$815 million) on the handhelds and related technology over the next five years as part of the rollout, which will involve 13 datacentres and nearly 500 field offices.

The seven-week rehearsal will give officials a chance to evaluate the usability of the handhelds by a diverse workforce. “When you’re hiring 500,000 people so quickly, you can’t be too picky [about] whom you’re hiring, and they’ll have all kinds of technology backgrounds,” Murray says.

In addition, Harris will be able to see if its field office servers are sized properly to handle the data sent to them from the handhelds, which are being custom-built for the Census Bureau by Taiwan’s High Tech Computer.

The Census Bureau had planned to control access to the handhelds through the use of both passwords and fingerprint scans. But it decided to rely only on the scans in order to simplify the use of the devices, Murray says. He added that the biometric approach is still very secure on its own.

Bob Egan, an analyst at Massachusetts-based TowerGroup, says fingerprint scans or other biometric checks are increasingly being adopted on handheld deployments involving industrial applications or other heavy-duty uses.

“The bad news is that a lot of biometric devices still have a lot of issues,” Egan says. This can result in both false positives and negatives, he adds. For example, users are sometimes blocked from accessing their devices because of moisture on their fingers.

Another potential technical issue involves the GPS antenna-chip built into the handhelds. Murray says the chip was chosen to enable the devices to find GPS satellites on cloudy days or from inside doorways as workers record information from residents.

A common problem with some older GPS devices is that they’re unable to find locations in overcast conditions. But Harris checked the Census Bureau handhelds in “all different environments and never had a problem with cloudy days”, Murray says.

“We hope we checked everything. At least, that’s the goal.”

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Tags HandheldsNetworking & Telecomms IDus census bureau

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