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Census Bureau to go high-tech in 2010

In 2010, the Census Bureau for the first time will equip its work force of 500,000 people with hand-held computers to help them make a more precise count.
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the upcoming 2010 census, the Census Bureau for the first time will equip its temporary work force of 500,000 people with hand-held computers made by Harris Corp., to help them make a more precise count of more than 300 million people living in the 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Every decade since 1790, the government has painstakingly counted the residents in each household. They do a pretty good job, with historical accuracy to half of 1 percent, according to Preston Jay Waite, Associate Director for the Decennial Census.

To be even more accurate, and save both time and money, the agency hired outside contractors for the 2010 census to supply the wireless computers, linked to a nationwide data collection system.

Accuracy is critical, since census numbers determine how federal and state governments divvy up $200 billion in annual funding. The data is also used for redistricting congressional representation and community planning.

Private industry, too, relies on government statistics. They're used by banks, insurance companies, health care providers and retailers — pretty much any business that needs consumer information from targeted geographic areas.

The first steps of the process won't change in the upcoming census. In March 2010, the bureau will mail about 150 million post cards, alerting each household that a census will be taken. Then a letter will be sent with census questions, covering all the people at each address, as of April 1, 2010 — also known as Census Day.

Ideally, Waite said, all households would mail back their responses within a couple of weeks. But about 35 percent to 38 percent of households don't respond. The bureau sends a second letter to these stragglers, which generates up to 10 percent more responses.

Then, in April 2010, the Census Bureau plans to send out 500,000 temporary workers, called enumerators, to visit the households that haven't responded. Workers are trained to conduct brief interviews at each house. Enumerators will carry wireless hand-held computers, specially made by Harris. Over a three-month period, data will be collected and transmitted to computers at 455 regional offices. By Dec. 31, a report will be compiled and submitted to the president, as required by law.

Fewer errors
Accuracy is much greater when people fill out forms for themselves, Waite said. When they're talking with an interviewer, they can get nervous and forget to give information, or make other mistakes.

Common mistakes are divorced parents both reporting their children, or people who own more than one home getting counted as residents in both places. The new computer system can catch those duplications, Waite said.

Mistakes in headcount can happen in several ways, Waite said — not only by omitting to count people, or counting them more than once, but also by attributing people to the wrong location.

Surprisingly, about half of census-recording errors come from mapping mistakes, Waite said. In the past, the bureau printed paper maps identifying each U.S. household. But census-takers often had trouble deciphering the maps. This time, they'll use computer maps that pinpoint each address to an accuracy of 3 meters. That's particularly important in high-density areas in cities and also helps with rural locations, where remote farm houses can be hard to track down.

Field trials so far have resulted in a 91 percent accuracy rate, which Waite said is better than expected. "At first, we wanted to develop the technology ourselves, but we realized that we didn't have the expertise," Waite said.

In 2002, Harris, a defense contractor and communications company, won the $600 million contract for the Field Data Collection Automation program, as well as a contract for mapping.

Other companies, such as Dell Inc., Sprint Nextel Corp., Oracle Corp., will provide software and equipment to collect and store data.

Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris had total sales in fiscal 2006 of $3.5 billion.

Harris' first project was to create a master address file for the U.S., along with detailed maps that show every location.

Between now and 2010, the Census Bureau will keep testing the electronic system, with "dress rehearsals" in March in San Joaquin County, Calif., and Fayetteville, N.C.