Census system overload but no data lost

Manual field processes save the day

A failed module in the computerised census system forced area supervisors to fall back on manual procedures which were over-loading the total system and putting what Statistics New Zealand has acknowledged as untenable pressures on field staff in some areas.

The progress reporting module, which was intended to keep a record of delivery of documents, was abandoned after a week of operation, as information vanished into the ether.

“It should have given each sub-district an overall picture,” says the supervisor, who does not want to be named.

For census purposes, the country is divided into regions, areas, districts and sub-districts. There are around 600 district supervisors and 6500 collectors.

At the core of the census system is the respondent management system (RMS), which is based on thin client. As well as census returns gathered by collectors, some people choose to mail their return or make it via the internet. In all cases, once the data is scanned or entered, a text message is generated for collectors so they don’t go un-necessarily to dwellings.

But the system is overloaded and, according to the supervisor who contacted Computerworld, some staff were abused when they turned up at houses that have already filed their returns.

“Response times are ridiculous,” the supervisor says. “Everything is dial-up, so it’s even worse in some parts of the country. It’s taking up to 15 minutes to log on. There are 16 people in my organisation trying to use two computers at dial-up speed.”

An email from the project manager of the census field management team outlines some of the issues:

“We … have past [sic] on the agreement that has been reached not to have all mailback forms received in the district offices entered into the RMS on the thin clients. For most of you, this will now mean a full manual process is going to be used when you or your clerk collect the mail each day. ... It was not an easy decision for Statistics New Zealand to make as there is [sic] major downstream effects on other census processes, especially the post enumeration survey and the evaluation project. The decision was made as an acknowledgement of the load that the thin clients have put of the field staff, and the untenable pressures this is creating in some areas. ... There are big implications in this decision for some later census projects that we are still working through.”

Statistics New Zealand developed and tested the system internally, but outsourced the web services to Datacom.

CIO Graeme Osborne says 245,000 text messages have been generated and that only a small percentage have not gone out.

“We are monitoring it carefully, and there is no major issue,” he says.

The field management system has not performed as well as planned, leading to some frustration, but the integrity of data collection has not been undermined, he says, particularly the confidential nature of the data.

“We’re rapt with the online process. We’ve had 350,000 responses — 250,000 individuals and 100,000 households — over the internet.”

All forms will be collected by Monday, March 20.

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