The Census's Tech Woes

An inadequate and overly-complex gadget sends the bureau's budget skywards and its practices backwards

Handheld Census Computer

After sinking millions into the computer, the government canceled plans to use them during the 2010 census.Harris Corp.

While the private sector is making strides toward a paperless office environment, the government appears to be stumbling backward. Last week, the Department of Commerce canceled plans to use handheld devices for door-to-door canvassing during the 2010 census. The devices failed on a surprising number of counts. They could not properly transmit large data files; they did not meet over 400 technical requirements; and they proved too complex for temporary workers to figure out.

Congressional testimony reveals most of the fault lies with the Census Bureau for inadequately communicating the government's needs, but a failure to translate even the known needs into an intuitive digital tool clearly rests with Harris Corp., the manufacturer. The end result is a budget for the census that has skyrocketed, far surpassing previous estimates, which even then placed it as the most expensive on record.

The gadgets won't be entirely scrapped; they will be used to verify residential address with GPS software. But it is a far cry from their original intent of remotely collecting all the information on a census form and sending that data to a central computer.