My Two Census

Formerly the non-partisan watchdog of the 2010 US Census, and currently an opinion blog that covers all things political, media, foreign policy, globalization, and culture…but sometimes returning to its census/demographics roots.

Urgent: Census Workers Lost…And Found

After two Census Bureau employees went missing earlier today, one wonders: Why aren’t GPS systems installed in the handheld computers that all Census Bureau enumerators must carry? Why was there such a lack of communication between supervisors and their employees that the precise location of the employees could not be determined until many hours after they went missing and search efforts were underway from state police, firefighters, and troops?

The Chicago Tribune reported the following when the two employees were found:

STEPHENSON, Mich. – State police say two workers with the U.S. Census Bureau who were stranded on an isolated road in Menominee County have been found after an eight-hour search.

A news release from the Stephenson post said the women’s car got stuck Wednesday night on the seasonal road.

They called for help on a cell phone. But a poor connection prevented dispatchers from pinpointing the women’s location.

Troopers, volunteer firefighters and other law enforcement agencies helped with the search.

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5 Responses to “Urgent: Census Workers Lost…And Found”

  1. Eric Lee Says:

    A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

  2. Anonymous CL Says:

    GPS systems *are* installed in the handheld computers.

    Many people don’t understand that all GPS does on its own is *receive* signals from satellites which the GPS device uses to figure out its own location.

    *Some* devices that include a GPS receiver also frequently transmit the device’s location using the cellular phone network so that someone could monitor its location, but that functionality is totally separate from GPS. Many GPS devices have no cellular-network transmission capability at all. And for those that do, you must have a solid cellular signal for the location info to be able to be transmitted. GPS satellite data can be received worldwide in many places that don’t have cell phone service.

    The Census Bureau handheld computers do have the ability to use the cellular network, but they do not use it continuously like cell phones do — rather, they only transmit about every 4 hours and when the user manually initiates a transmission. They must be in range of a solid cellular signal for this to work, though, and the article says they had a very poor connection on their regular cell phone, so the signal wouldn’t have been strong enough for the Census handheld computer to use.

    When a transmission *is* made from a Census handheld computer, it does report the current location at the time of transmission. The area’s Field Operations Supervisor, on their laptop-based system, apparently can see the location when Crew Leaders and Crew Leader Assistants transmit, but I don’t know if the FOS can see enumerators’ transmission locations. (Crew Leaders cannot see enumerators’ locations on their handheld computers.) Probably some other places up the chain can see everyone’s transmission locations when it’s necessary to look into one.

    The only things these enumerators could have done would be to walk to a place with a stronger cellular signal and then make their phone call, or walk to a place with a land-line phone and use that to make their phone call. (The handheld computers are also capable of using a land-line phone jack to transmit, fwiw.)

    Regarding the “lack of communication between supervisors and their employees”, the nature of this field work is that nobody knows exactly where their subordinates are at every moment. Crew Leaders receive a list of Assignment Areas, which they assign to their enumerators. Crew Leaders meet in-person with the enumerators daily to discuss their progress and plan which areas to do next. But it is up to each enumerator to decide what time of day they will be working in which area, and it’s impossible to know in advance how far along and exactly where they will be working in a particular Assignment Area at a particular point in time.

    Some Assignment Areas have more work than others and so take widely varying amounts of time (e.g. an area in which an enumerator finds several recently-built streets needing to be added, takes more work/time that couldn’t have been expected). Assignment Areas are also of widely varying geographic sizes, due to the approximate population density in the area — some as small as a city block or two, some as large as several square miles in rural areas. The enumerators in this story were obviously working on an obscure road in a large rural Assignment Area, making them much harder to find.

  3. My Two Census » Blog Archive » Is Big Brother Watching You in 2010? Says:

    [...] You in 2010?Even though we at MyTwoCensus feel that the Census Bureau’s GPS technology is light-years behind where it should be, Douglas V. Gibbs of the American Daily Review is worried that any transmission [...]

  4. Anonymous CL Says:

    By the way, although there wasn’t really a way it could have helped this particular situation, I definitely agree that the capabilities of the handheld computers should have been better-developed.

  5. KT Says:

    i just read this today and realize that this event was quite a while ago…But. While basically agreeing with CL, I must add that as lame as the HHC (Hand Held Computers) were, there’s no way the government can always have the latest and greatest technology. This entire episode could have been mitigated, to some degree anyway, had the two enumerators let their Crew Leader know what area they were working. Not a requirement, but a “what if’ precaution.