Behind the Census Bureau`s Mobile SNAFU

Don’t worry, Americans: You will be counted as part of the 2010 U.S. census–just not as efficiently as planned, thanks to the meltdown of a major mobile computing implementation that was supposed to bring the huge data-collection project into the wireless age.

The goal was to make participating in the census as easy as signing for a FedEx package. But while your parcel-delivery service has had the handheld thing down pat for quite a while now, much of the 2010 census will still take place on paper–just as it has since 1790, when George Washington was president.

In March, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress, fingered the upcoming census as a high-risk operation. The designation came as a result of the Census Bureau’s lagging mobile technology implementation, which was intended to reduce costs while improving data quality and collection efficiency. The bureau had estimated that outfitting census takers with mobile devices and providing associated systems would account for about $3 billion of the estimated $11.5 billion cost of the entire census.

Now those numbers, as well as the timeframe for system testing, are off the table. The bureau will need an additional $2.2 billion to $3 billion in funding over the next five years to meet its needs, bringing total costs closer to $14.5 billion.

“The American people expect and deserve a timely and accurate decennial census, and I won’t rest until they have it,” Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said in a statement. (The Census Bureau is part of the Commerce Department.) Much of the handheld program, on the other hand, will be given a rest until the next census rolls around in 2020.

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