Chunky crapgadget used to conduct the US census (kind of)

Ethan Zuckerman grilled the census worker who came to his door about the giant, clunky, dysfunctional PDA the US government uses to conduct its census with. It's a crapgadget par excellence.

The device she had strapped to her hand was a Harris HTC, which looks either like the ugliest cellphone you've ever seen, or a Palm Pilot designed by the US government. We scrolled through bad, inaccurate maps of the area, which looked like they'd been dumped from an early version of MapQuest, wondering how the ridgeline behind my house had magically been transformed into a navigable road, and talked about the device...

They're not making a whole lot of friends with this new device. Last year, the Government Accountability Office added the 2010 Census to a list of high-risk programs. Basically, it sounds like requirements changed several times, and Harris ended up very late to market, with a somewhat buggy device. This freaked people out, and the Census quickly announced that they wouldn't actually be using the devices - they'd use them just to conduct the first stage of the census, checking addresses, while the actual census (conducted door to door, of people who hadn't sent in the forms themselves) would take place using clipboards and paper.

In other words, the relatively lame device my friendly enumerator was carrying, which cost $600 million, doesn't actually work well enough to use for its intended purpose, is still being used in the field, perhaps so that it can be readied for 2020? Anyone believe that we'll be able to do better than a half-pound, paperback-book sized plastic brick within ten years?

If US government contractors had designed the iPhone


  1. I work for the census, and that machine is indeed one of the worst pieces of electronic BS to ever grace my hands. Already, two weeks into my employment, two software upgrades have been added to it, but it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a perfectly impossible thing to use, and I spend most of the time I get paid for dealing with the help desk.

  2. The question is, can it count the number of people in a household? If so, then it’s fine for the job at hand. You can make your stupid, snarky remarks, but remember that this is a job that’s done once a decade. It doesn’t nee iPhone level technology.

    There’s a classic SF story about two waring worlds. One world’s technology kept advancing so fast that they continually threw out their old weapon technology, because it had been superseded by the Next Big Idea. The other world just built up a huge arsenal of weapons that, while not the latest and greatest, nevertheless did the job.

    Guess who won the war?

  3. Looks like a noika 6010 with a touchscreen hacked to fit the display.

    For only $600,000,000 I expect no less from the US government.

  4. To some extent I’m w/ #2 on this one. Check out the computers the UPS/FedEx guy carries. Big ugly clunky but they can take a drop down a flight of stairs into a puddle. Also keep in mind that the this is carrying a lot of sensitive info, thus the need for solid crypto and reasonable physical security. That said, given the comments from #1 and the penchants of the last administration it might well be a POS.

    What does enrage me is the BoingBoing Kewl Kids Klub attitude that if is isn’t hip enough (or isn’t apple) or name brand enough it’s crapgadget.

  5. We used to steal Harris brand test sets from the backs of telco vans. What happened to those day?

  6. Truly, unnamed science fiction stories are the best basis for judging the quality of electronics paid for with federal tax dollars.

    And you know, the article actually states that it can’t count the number of people in a household.

  7. Not only can’t it count the number of people in the household (as the FA states), it also can’t even direct the census workers who are carrying it to the houses they’re supposed to count, turning random ridges into passable roads, etc (also per the FA). But don’t let that stop you, @Art Carnage, since you clearly have an imaginary version of this gadget that you’re compelled to defend by citing hypothetical science fiction stories, and that moral high ground entitles you to call me “stupid.”

  8. So, would it be possible to, say, challenge someone to write an iPhone app that does this with Google Maps?

  9. Forgive me for my noobness, but what part of this device requires dedicated, customized hardware? Why couldn’t they use Windows Mobile/Palm/iPhone/TabletPC, written some custom software, and spent a chunk of change on giving everyone wireless data to upload data in real time. No security issues because nothing is stored on the device (for long), built on proven technology, and doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.

  10. @Sam – You’ve got it all wrong. This must be secure because it’s going to have the same information on it that would be on a pile of paper otherwise.

    Any government contractor will want a good excuse for price gouging – so expensive solutions mean complex things that break all the time (those helpdesk calls are a source of income for someone).

    Actually having it being a better solution than a paper map and a clipboard probably wasn’t part of the tender, and probably wasn’t evaluated by anyone competent.

    @Monopole – if this did what it was supposed to do, and was half as robust as the FedEx doodads, my guess is that most BBers would be saying WANT! (the rest would need a steam gauge added).

  11. The story you had in mind was A C Clarke, “Superiority.” It was inspired by the German V2 and jet development programs (also Clarke worked on the Allied radar program, and was a member of the British Interplanetary Society, not to mention being the first person to propose communication satellites after the war, so it’s not like he was a Luddite).

  12. Sam @11: the process started in 2001, well before the iPhone, GoogleMaps and all sorts of fantastic new tech that today we take for granted came to be.
    Today, you and me could probably develop something new, from scratch, using some chinese iPhone-knockoff, googlemaps and Django/Rails, in a month and for less than $1000… but you can’t expect your government to wait “a few years” for new technology before they start pushing out tenders.

    The real shame here is Harris taking so many years to build such a crap device. But hey, from Halliburton-style companies I don’t expect anything better — they don’t really care about satisfying the customer, as competition in the sector is ridiculously small anyway, the only thing that matters is getting as much taxpayer money as possible in the less accountable way as possible.

  13. @2:
    Guess who won the war?

    I’m not sure who won in your story, but in a real life battle I’d put my money on the side with the better tech.

  14. The feds can’t win on this one. Do you want them to take privacy seriously or not? A custom device is the right way to go. Plus, try ordering over 100,000 iPhones and see how long you have to wait.

    And for #15 – counting houses only in areas with a good wireless connection is not an option.

  15. Minamisan, the SF story is essentially retelling the second world war in Europe. The Germans had better — that is to say, the most advanced — tech, what with their jet engines, rockets, guided missiles, infra-red gun-sights and whatnot, but they chased too many high-tech solutions and dissipated their research efforts. By concentrating on only a few new technologies, ones that worked and were perfectable in the time-scales available, the Allies got the most bang for their buck. That’s the simple version, anyway.

    Saying that, I don’t know who is supposed to be who in this analogy. Spending $600 million on a device that doesn’t do the job sounds like the Germans in WW2, but the tech doesn’t sound all that advanced, compared to what’s available elsewhere.

  16. My wife was on one of the teams that did early field testing of the units 2 summers ago – it truely is an interesting piece of technology.

    Its really cool how they integrated GPS into it, fingerprint recognition to log in, keep everything locked down, and the UI is fairly simple, albeit, not intuitive in some ways.

    Where _I_ think they screw up is the radio/cellular technology they have integrated into it. She would sometimes sit for an hour while the unit tried to upload/download new data (assignment for the day). It would sometimes take 10 minutes to upload a confirmed address. Do you really want someone standing on your front porch with one of those gadgeets for 10 minutes???? It made for some interesting discussions…..

    I’m not defending it – for the amount of money and time they had invested in the project, it should have been a LOT more robust. But when it worked (WHEN) it worked pretty slick. I’d say %90 of the time it worked. But that %10 that didn’t work would take up %95 of her time.

    Responding to the “does it count” questions…. The process doesn’t work that way. The first wave of the census is only to verify addresses. A census worker with one of those machines has to visit _EVERY_ house/apt/trailer/camper/tent inside their assigned area and confirm the address in the machine, remove the house if its not there, add the house if its not in the database, or move it if the data isn’t accurate. Every residence in the US needs to be confirmed by a human census worker using that machine. That is the primary purpose of these handheld units – NOT to count people.

    Once every dwelling is confirmed, the gov’t sends out the census forms to those addresses and it goes like every other census in the past 20 yrs.

    The last step, is for a census worker to use one of those units to go visit people that didn’t return their census forms and help them complete the forms. Whether or not the unit is used to record the results or if they will just use a #2 pencil and paper (like most folks will do) I don’t know. But in either case, the number of people in the field at that point is only a tiny fraction of those doing the house/address verification.

  17. The story in question is the 1951 Arthur C. Clarke story, “Superiority.” It is indeed based on the arms race of World War 2, in which the Germans were actually considerably more technologically advanced than the Allies, and put themselves at a disadvantage as a result, by focusing on new, immature technologies at the expense of old, proven ones. Wikipedia says it is (or was) even required reading at West Point.

    I don’t know what that has to do with a crappy PDA that costs $600 million, though.

  18. The truly sad thing is that there have been a plethora of off-the-shelf ruggedized PDAs that would have met the requirements (sans pointless fingerprint reader) for a while now. Those of you who think everything is aping the iPhone really have no idea how stupid that device is.

    For example, I really liked the previous versions of this little guy.

    I remember thinking when that contract was announced, me and a couple of people could have done it for half, worked for a year, and then retired to our dachas. But that would have upset the system of graft that is government contracting.

  19. On the “bad, inaccurate maps of the area, which looked like they’d been dumped from an early version of MapQuest”, that is probably the TIGER database, created by the Census Bureau. It looks like early MapQuest because almost all US map databases are derived from it in one way or another. Even Google would have had trouble getting to a full map database if there wasn’t a free, publicly available national dataset to work on.

    I worked on the first version of these electronic maps before the 1990 census, in my summer just out of high school. One of our jobs was to cross out things on the maps that weren’t roads as we went door to door verifying addresses.

    Digital mapping is something the Census Bureau should receive more credit for, not less. It’s not as good as Google Maps? No, but that’s because Google is a for-profit company that keeps their data proprietary, so their changes to the database don’t go back into the public domain, where much of the base of their maps came from.

  20. If it can’t do what it is supposed to do …

    The fact that the design on this device was begun in 2001 is part of the problem.

    Another part of the problem is that — being a secure device used by the United States Government on a necessarily-secure project, the parts cannot be sourced from just any supplier; They need certified and bonded suppliers, which generally means they’re getting whatever IBM / Intel / AMD / Texas Instruments is going to sell them off-the-shelf — which means obsolete and overpriced tech, add two years lead time. All the suppliers also have to have the time to produce the parts – so add a year lead time, and the government has to certify the production machines, ranging from spot-check to certifying each and every one of the machines – so, probably another year lead time.

    So what we have here is hardware that was available off-the-shelf in 2003, running software that last was updated in 2005, accessing data that was last updated in 1999, and which could not have undergone alpha or beta testing until – now.

    The design failure was in not allowing the hardware to be designed and produced in 2007, to /only capture census information/, and have all the maps and directions be on paper. This was probably not an option due to numerous regulations and guidelines.

  21. Oh, hay – I missed the comment regarding them being field tested in 2007, and the part about them being used to verify map accuracy. So, they really are single-purpose.

    If they were field-tested in 2007, those would be the production test units, which means they really did take two years to finish production and certify and distribute all the units.

    I’m gonna still go with the notion that the hardware was what was available off-the-shelf in 2003.

  22. Digital mapping is something the Census Bureau should receive more credit for, not less.

    They were selling it for several thousand until Bruce Perens bought it and started giving it away. See, they couldn’t actually stop him because it was produced on the public dime entirely by the government. Then they started giving it away.

    The USGS gives away data, too.

  23. I am getting a kick out of this, because I used to work for Harris, and am still friends with one of the higher-ups who *used* to work on this thing.

    This project started years ago, before you could get a PDA with a GPS built-in. The government does NOT want to take a “the consumer market will built just what we need when we need it” approach. If the technology is not off-the-shelf (and it wasn’t at the time), they will build it.

    Also keep in mind that it is just not about providing a solution. I do not know the details about this device in particular, but governments run on paperwork. There were specifications that Harris had to meet. I would not be surprised if the specifications changed on a weekly basis. This thing probably had to be waterproof, drop-proof, and secure.

    Hind-sight is always 20/20. It is easy to say now that the iPhone is out and would fit the needs perfectly, but who knew exactly what an iPhone was four years ago? They also started coding this years ago. Which language do they use? C++? Won’t work on an iPhone. If they pick a language, they have to stick to it, or go through the pain of porting. Same for the OS on the phone. Who could predict exactly what the software environment would look like in three years? If you make your own, you have control over these types of things.

  24. Oh. I forgot to mention. The fingerprint reader was probably a “shall” line in the specifications. Since it is not likely that any existing device would have one built-in, they HAD to build their own, or they did not meet all of the requirements.

  25. Maybe it’s crappy so it wouldn’t be stolen, err I mean lost. Give out tens of thousands of iPhones to people, how many would come back?

  26. I am sure the solution to the Census problem will come from the private sector. I will be skeptical if the population of the U.S. comes out to be exactly equal to the number of Wal*Mart shoppers, though.

  27. @20: The fingerprint reader isn’t “unnecessary”. It’s essential to protect confidentiality, without which nobody would cooperate with the census at all.

  28. A worker came to my front door with this thing two days ago. Super intrigued as I have an unnatural attraction for any sort of cell phone tech and have read snippets about this thing for years. I started to ping it as he started down the other side. It has a totally screwed up handshake and….well I probably shouldn’t say any more….laws; you know.

  29. iPhone? Jeezus! Why would you write an app for this on an overpriced closed-source proprietary single-vendor bar o’ soap that can’t be used by people with normal prosthetics? After all, civil service gives preference to veterans, and even more preference to purple hearts, so prosthetics are pretty much a given for the user interface.

    On the other claw, the required functions could be implemented on an android phone in about two evening’s worth of programming. All the security infrastructure & mapping capabilities are already built-in…

  30. This is so freaking hard to use! It doesn’t work correctly, it’s incredibly inefficient, it’s touch screen stylus never works right…….But I’m being paid $15 an hour to deal with it!

  31. #29 beat me to it – LOL
    If the census service used iPhones and/or the G1 Android, it would probably turn into the biggest government cellphone give away =-)

    A couple other things I forgot to add to my post above.

    These were really designed to be remote offices. End users filled out their time cards on it, supervisors approved time sheets on it, supervisors assigned routes on it, users downloaded their next assignments, and had simple “email” functionality between team members and supervisors.

    We live out in the boonies where cellular coverage can be dodgy at best and the areas where she worked were within 5 miles of our house. I’m still convinced most of their problems where with their data transmission.

    I’m certain everything was encrypted and if you get flakey cellular data coverage and start failing checksums over slow up/down load speeds, there is no telling how many retries it would take to get everything done.

  32. I work for the census, and the idea behind the system is good but it simply does not work well. I do quality control and the algorithm it uses to determine when an area passes lets every area pass. It runs windows mobile, and takes upwards of 20 mins to confirm things at times. I think all it really needs is more processing power to be effective, but for what they spent on it I would much rather use almost any pda or smart phone with a custom app.

  33. Yup, a friend working for the census confirms they’re pretty much doorstops.

    She told me last night that users must have two different fingerprints recognized by the system, so they can still get into the unit in case one of their fingers get chopped off. Ugh!

  34. I’m currently a QC Enumerator (read: census worker), and to be perfectly honest, I have not experienced a single problem with my handheld. The maps (guess what) are only as accurate as they have been entered by previous census employees. It is the fault of the employee if the roads are entered incorrectly, not the fault of the GPS. In fact, part of what I get paid $17.50 to do is to correct dated or incorrect information. We don’t get to keep the handhelds at the end. They are not designed to be a workers new toy or to make you feel hip and stylin’; they are for entering information, and so far as my experience goes, they do that job.

  35. C’mon people, even shiny new GPS’s constantly tell people to drive into cliffs, ditches, and rivers, and even misdirect them away from thoroughfares! (Ask your friendly neighbourhood trucker)

  36. First of all, the handheld computers did not cost $600M. That cost includes 2 Data Processing Centers with full redundancy, several Test and Integration processing centers, a Network Operations Center to monitor the entire system of systems, a Security Operations Center also monitoring the entire system, an Asset Management System tracking hundreds of thousands of assets down to the person issued the device, a Help Desk for hundreds of thousands of users, Training for those users, external interfaces to 15 very large existing Census Bureau systems (all of which are unique), full compliance with NIST/Department of Commerce/Census Bureau Information System Security requirements (including 2-factor identity verification-hence the fingerprint reader), cellular and wired telecom networks,just to name a partial list.

    Second, the problems with the long transmission times referred to in #20 has been fixed. It was not inherent to the hand held computers; it resulted from problems synchronizing the databases in the fielded handhelds to the servers in the Data Processing Center.

    Third, the Census Bureau is way ahead of schedule on the Address Canvassing operation. They expected to be able to canvass 1.5 million addresses a day, but have achieved 9 million.

    Fourth, the maps are provided by the Government. The handhelds can only display the maps provided. The handheld apps do allow the canvassers to add/delete houses/streets/neighborhoods accurately using the GPS capability and a simple touchscreen operation.

    Finally, the Census is far more than counting the people in households. When you get your Census form to fill out, you will be surprised how long the form is. The canvassers also have to count people in jails, retirement homes, homeless communities in the woods, etc.

    What the handheld looks like is absolutely meaningless in a project of this size. Tell us again how two hacks could put this system together in 6 months.

    An informed reader.

  37. Harris won the contract way back when. the company I work for was going to be in on the contract with them to help with the methodology as well as doing grunt work repositioning the TIGER data.

    The 600million contract was NOT only for the PDA collection device. 80% of the contact monies was spent on repositioning the old TIGER map data sothat it would be accurate within a 5-10m ground truth accuracy.

    This has involved 5 years of work collecting local source data from counties, cities and states, then painstakingly moving road, carto and other geometry in the TIGER map to it’s correct position.
    They finished this process late last year, ON schedule.

    The PDA device looks to have been designed by an engineer without any input from users on the requirements.

    So before you start the $600million omgwtfbbq bashing, be sure you know what you are talking about.

  38. So, with e-voting, we had to de-certify all the equipment because it couldn’t be made to work and it was too easily subject to post-electoral shenanigans…

    And here it is, in hand-held form, just in time for the 2010 census!

    Equally buggy, and as it is 100% electronic with no hardcopy record, just as wonderfully subject to shenanigans…

  39. The local census worker showed up at my door yesterday. The government handheld showed a map with 14th and 15th street names swapped. He was done for the day.

  40. . The government does NOT want to take a “the consumer market will built just what we need when we need it” approach. If the technology is not off-the-shelf (and it wasn’t at the time), they will build it.

    This has been going on for quite awhile now at Census. I worked on the data processing for the 1980 Census, and in particular, to interfacing the FOSDIC machines with the mainframes. FOSDIC was an early optical mark reader, but by the late 1970s, I think there were alternatives starting to show up on the market. Nevertheless, we were using FOSDIC, since that is what was used before. It used a proprietary three level blocking structure that I had to decode for the programs that did the processing.

    We also had a proprietary I/O system or architecture called CENIO. One feature was that everything was checksummed, and those checksums could be compared to expected checksums. It was aimed at 1960s (or earlier) era tape drives. We had clerks whose sole job it was was to verify those checksums.

    I left the Census Bureau right before the 1980 Decennial Census after I had applied for a job in systems programming, and had had it blocked by the deputy director until 1981 or so, so I could continue to work on the Decennial Census. I was offered a job doing the systems programming by the vendor supplying the mainframes to Census, by a friend of the guy running that shop there. He had a civil service salary card in front of him, and could tell me to the dollar how much Census could increase my pay to keep me, added 20%, and I jumped.

  41. Interesting. Last time I had any dealings with Harris they were trying to fob off some 10-year-old mini-computers on our state government. Their salesman wasn’t much amused when I pointed out that our desktop PCs — AT&T 286s at the time — actually had more RAM, larger hard drives, and faster throughput than their machine, along with a plethora of available software.

    The big advantage of the Harris mini they were pushing was job security. Buy one and you also needed several people to maintain it, write software for it, instruct people in how to use it, etc. One of our state agencies actually bought one. Two years later their IT guys were still working on writing a wordprocessing program for it. This about the same time my agency was using MS Word. Now I’m not much of a fan of Word, but at least I didn’t have to spend two years of my life trying to reinvent the wheel in CMOS.

    I’m thinkin’ there’s a reason you don’t see Harris selling much to the general public..

  42. My boyfriend and I have been harrassed twice in one of those special audits. They show up at 8PM in the middle of a dinner party and don’t seem to realize that it might be some sort of intrusion. One of our dinner guests one night was a former census district supervisor The guy actually threatened us with arrest. And we had already filled out their intrusive form and mailed it in and spoken with the home office. And as big a fan as I am of open borders(I’m not being facetious), it would be nice, if they’re going to employ obstreperous people that they found people who spoke fluent English.

  43. My neighbor came to the door the other day with one of those things (working for the census) — a different worker from the same team had come by a few days before. Apparently, the gps system has our house (and many in the neighborhood) so off base that they were showing up in an entirely different area (apparently the first guy believed they were part of his area of responsibility — she, who lives a few doors down from me realized that his info was totally bolluxed up. It looked to me like she was using the stylus to physically drag our house on the map to its proper place. Surely there must be an easy way to lat-long all of the houses from google maps or live.maps. I know they spent 64 quidjillion dollars on the things but it’s throwing good money after bad to pay people to manually fix what should be computerized.

  44. It wasn’t $600 million. Last report I saw last year said the project had run to $1.3 billion.

  45. You can’t expect miracles the first time out. After all, the Census just started using computers.

    In 1890.

  46. If this is counting houses, not people, and verifying map information then why the super fingerprint security. I don’t think how many houses are on 14th street is private info. Your using double fingerprint and encryption to mail me a paper form that I’m going to stick in a mailbox?

  47. Haakon IV, Google does not own its streets data. It buys it from vendors such as TeleAtlas. Which is why it sends you to those sites when the data is inaccurate. I believe TeleAtlas releases its updated data on a quarterly basis.
    Tiger data used to be the best street data around and was the basis of many current and very accurate street data. It all had to start somewhere, and Tiger was it. It wasn’t as focused on precision as it was on addressing. The great thing about it is that it’s free and anyone can download it (
    I am wondering why the Census Bureau used it as a basis instead of some commercial vendor’s data. I do wonder whether it wouldn’t have been cheaper to lease street data from TeleAtlas or GDT instead of starting almost from scratch with Tiger. Was the intent to own the data?

  48. I was an Census enumerator.

    Lotta BS on this site. #40, 42 and 43 have the correct take on things.

    Enumerators were paid to physically locate structures, map their locations with the GPS, AND determine how many units are in teh building.

    The HHC? Not bad at all — the main problem was in being able to get the You-Are-Here indicator on the GPS to display on rainy days. But GPS accuracy? Spot on. Some people had trouble learning how to use the GPS function, but that was cockpit error.

    Bad computerized maps? Compared to what? That’s what the enumerators are supposed to address: missing roads, bogus addresses within blocks, new buildings added, others torn down etc.

    And for those of you blithely citing Google maps: here’s a free clue: the tops of buildings can’t tell you how many dwellings, if any, are inside them.

    The HHC was never designed to input data taken from people on the spot. The data is meant to make sure that all dwellings are recorded and put into a master database, and that each dwelling unit gets one (and one only) census form keyed to the computerized information we gathered.

    Maybe Rahm Emanuel is plotting with ACORN to send fifty forms to some dwellings to swell populations in key states, but he will have to crawl over the bodies of Census professionals, who take their job seriously.

    An Census worker “done for the day” because of a mapping error? Hah. All field workers are part-timers working BY THE HOUR for a temporary operation called ELCO, not part of the permanent census organization .

    If a worker wants to falsify his time record (which he inputs and uploads into the hand-held each day), he will have to explain why the time stamps for the data he uploaded don’t match the time he claims was spent in the field.

    Don’t think they don’t check. QC people check work by going into the field and doing spot checks. QC reported one of my uploaded address listings was incorrect error, and QC was correct — that’s out of 1500 units I reported.

    Two fingerprints in case one finger gets lopped off? —puhleeze. If your thumb was not being read properly, you could fall back on using another finger. I didn’t like the hassle of the scanner, but it did its job.

    My BIG complaint is that the Census hired me as part of group of 18 for a 6-to-8 week gig, for roughly twenty hours a week. After paying us $18 an hour for 42 hours of training, and sending into the field for what turned out to be a total of 50 hours of work, they told us they were “done” and canned us .

    This was in the Boston area.

    Either they didn’t need us in the first place, or they hired us under false pretenses. We felt hugely jerked around, and couldn’t help notice that we were being treated like we were peons gathering each morning behind a Walmart looking for day jobs.

    There’s yer scandal, right there!!!!

  49. What’s amazing to me is that a company could take $600M worth of gov’t funds and produce something that doesn’t work. Amazing because I own a consulting business myself, and boy, could I use a contract like that. And horrifying because that’s my money.

  50. my census coworker sent me this link. I have to say, the hhc is a godsend. In this economy, I’m grateful to have to wait 20-30 seconds to do what should take 3-5 seconds over 400 times a day. the whole census is a classic example of government (in)efficiency.

  51. #56 poster. The system does work. And the Census Bureau lets lucrative contracts for consulting to MITRE, Booze Allen Hamilton, etc, to help with oversight of contractors, so maybe you should pursue some of those. Even those consulting giants do not take on projects like the Field Data Collection Automation program–but maybe you could handle it. Right.

  52. And these are the people who will be running GM, Chrysler, our Banks…oh joy!!

  53. I am also a QC enumerator and I agree with # 40 and 55.

    The machines work OK and after 4 weeks on the job I am still learning to use all the software efficiently. I often go back to the Manual and find some new short cut and work faster and more efficiently each week in the job.

    The bad data on the machines it mostly from bad workers who did not pay attention in training.

    It’s like the old saying “It’s a bad workman who blame his tools”

    My only complaint is the archaic system of using text messages with the teny tiny keyboard and the old fashioned stylus to tap out your message.

    I understand the security concerns but I still would rather just use email to communicate with my supervisors or subordinates when necessary.

  54. I’m on my last week working on the census using one of these HHCs.

    The UI, based on Windows Mobile, is painful: going from one screen to another takes at least 2 seconds and occasionally much longer. A full day of this is hard on the brain. Just confirming a listing that is already correct takes about 10 stylus taps. An apartment building with 60 units that needs no changes to the data still takes about an hour of tapping to confirm it.

    It’s fun to stand next to illegally parked cars with the HHC and pretend to be entering a parking ticket.

  55. I am presently a Census address “lister.”
    “Enumeration” (collection of demographic info) won’t take place until next Spring.

    I agree pretty much with the Census employees who have commented here but I would like to address some of the points made by non-Census folks.

    The Harris hand-held computer: I think that the HHC does its job pretty well. Occasionally it “hiccups” during use but that is usually resolved by cycling power or doing a manual reset of the unit. Having used my HHC fulltime for the past four weeks, I think it is a pretty reliable unit. It has never lost any info. Is it overpriced? After a $700 billion bailout, a $787 billion stimulus package, and a $3 trillion increase in the national debt, how can anyone seriously ask this question?

    GPS: With the built-in GPS, you can move a foot in any direction and you will see a change in the map. The GPS seems pretty accurate — I don’t think it has been off by more than 10 feet at any time.

    Maps: Census mapping details and previously recorded addresses are downloaded to the HHC as needed. These maps do contain errors: Bad addresses, misnamed streets, and even street positioning errors. It is the Census lister’s job to get accurate information which includes correcting all errors in the database.

    Xmit/Recv: The cell phone link (which I believe is encrypted both ways) takes maybe 30 seconds to upload a day’s worth of addresses and download any messages.

    Security: The fingerprint scanner (which works reliably for me), the login password, and the two-way data encryption are necessary. In the address collection process this year, this level of security may seem like overkill. But next year, people have to trust that the personal information they give to the Census enumerators will remain confidential. In fact, we hand out a confidentiality notice to each resident who answers his/her door. As you may know, the decennial Census is mandated by the U.S. Constitution and numerous federal laws. As Census employees, we are subject to a jail term and/or fine if we reveal any information we have collected during our work. I take this subject pretty seriously, as I am sure my fellow employees do.

  56. (Continuation of #62)

    The HHCs will be reused next yaar. I don’t expect any hardware changes since the hardware works well (IMHO). I expect that the HHCs will “earn their stripes” during the enumeration next year. The Census Bureau will just replace the address canvassing software with enumeration software and train the Census takers to use it.

    Ease of use: The HHC’s elastic strap on the back holds it comfortably to the user’s hand. Pretty slick idea. Like any PDA, the user enters info via a stylus on the touchscreen. This method seems a lot better than previous paper methods. I expect that the enumeration next year will be quicker and more accurate using this Census’s approach than it has been previously.

    Security in the 2010 Census: From the enumerator’s point of view, much better than in the past. In the past, some thief could have swiped complete enumeration forms. Even if today’s bad guy has the HHC, he/she will have a heckuva time getting information out of the unit.

  57. “giant, clunky, dysfunctional”

    Only one of these words is pertinent to the performance of the tool, and judging by comments from actual users of the device, not entirely accurate. The rest are hyperbole or subjective.

  58. In Aug. of last year I applied for census work and was hired and trained as a crew supervisor which in turn required training and supervising 20 other people to use the Harris Handheld Computer (the HHC in Censusspeak) to verify and count addresses.

    The only thing that was more of a nightmare than the HHC constantly being unable to function so that I would be unable to transmit assignments to a crew of people eager for work was dealing with imbecilic decisions of managment people at the Census Bureau.

    Because Census Bureau management made the decision to start their project several month behind schedule, management wound up pushing everyone, using constant threats of immediate dismissal if the project, which crews were told would take 10 weeks, was not finished in five and a half.

    I suspect that managers at the Census Bureau are happy to compromise the quality of the census and abuse temporary employees if it means keeping control of more of the budget money that might have assured better quality results and avoided the lawsuits for alleged undercounting that happened during the 2000 census.

    Temporary census workers were repeatedly threatened in writing during training with dismissal if they

  59. To the gentleman who estimated the Harris Handheld worked 90 percent of the time, there were two period in two separate weeks, last week and the week before, one lasting nearly 29 hours and another lasing 20 when I was unable, as a census crew supervisor for 17 address canavasers, to transmit their assignments.

    This thing is garbage and the people within the Census Bureau who were responsible for its selection and the waste of our tax money associated with it should be dismissed.

    The fact that they continue to try to cover their behinds with this “Crapgadget” by foisting it off as a useful, timesaving device, is simply a way of trying to hide the massive amounts of our tax money these idiots wasted on this P.O.S.

  60. I’m also a QC Enumerator.

    The main problem I have with the HHC could be fixed very easily. I work in a rural state and deal with AAs (Assigned Areas) that are sometimes upwards of 60 square miles with dozens of Census Blocks included in the AA. I start at a specific address that the HHC has selected and either accept or reject what the Address Canvasser has entered and then proceed to check that next address as the original canvasser would have done. Once the HHC tells me that the entire AA has paased quality control check, I have to then go to each block that has duplicates or deletes. The HHC tells me (in text), what blocks need to be checked. The problem is that the blocks on the map are not marked with the block numbers making it hard to find all of the blocks that need checking. You can go to the map and hit an I (Identification button) and tap a block to find the block numbber, but with so many blocks needing checks, this is not a good way to figure out where to start and where to go next.

    Solution: Simply change all the blocks that need to be checked to a different color. This would make it easy to find the blocks and plan an efficient route to do the checks. Adding the block number to the map would be gravy.

    Currently, I use Google maps to print out the large AAs, usually in 2 or more sheets. I then use the HHC and fill in block numbers on the paper maps. Clunky, but I think I do a more efficient job.

  61. see


    Observations and Address Listers’ Reports Provide Serious Indications That Important Address Canvassing Procedures Are Not Being Follow—OIG-19636-01 [PDF]

  62. I’m cool with the rapturists.

    I always tell them that my handheld is scanning for unregistered firearms.

  63. To # 63:

    The HHC will not be reused next year for enumeration. The sole purpose of the HHC is to canvass addresses. The actual counting would be paper based.

  64. I was a census crew leader and I have to agree with most of the posters who said that working for the census was a joke.

    As far as the HHC, I hoped it would have worked, but it was a mediocre piece of crap. Several of my listers spent half a day on the phone with IT just to get it to work. Most of the software was fairly intuitive and easy to use, but the implementation of many of the features was poor. The maps were either terribly out of date, poorly drawn, or had features that did not exist. The GPS was inaccurate, showing sometimes that you were across the street from where you were really were.

    The worst part was the load times. Whoever programmed the software must have skipped programming class when they talked about garbage collection. After a few minutes working of working in multiple features, it would slow down considerably, forcing you to reboot. Then when you rebooted, you had to wait at least 5 minutes before you could work again.

    As far as working for the census, this was my first time working for the federal government, and except for the paycheck, this was probably the worst organization and the biggest cluster I have ever seen.

  65. I too was a crew leader this past spring and agree with the shrink-wrap analysis put forth by #72. It was a fairly easy way to get my chunk of stimulus $ however. Quite typical of big corp crash programs…most management people playing the blame game and more interested in covering their tails than actually maintaining integrity of the job at hand.

    HHC? The hand strap was a nice touch. My crew lost two of these $1000 units by using them to break a fall while clumping around in the wilderness. Well, they did save a scraped up hand.

    I haven’t researched how address canvassing was achieved 10 years ago, so don’t know if the HHC made things easier or not. There were problems other than the HHC of course, but the job was completed ahead of schedule. Most of the field problems were solved by the enumerators themselves with good ole yankee ingenuity.

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