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.

Investigative Series: Spotlight on Harris Corp. (Part 3)

Here is a first-person account (written by a highly qualified Census Bureau employee who has requested anonymity) submitted to us about the Harris Corp’s handheld computers that have been used in the field by the Census Bureau’s address canvassers during the first stage of 2010 Census operations:

I’d say the biggest bug in the handhelds was due to the government trying to assure privacy. They had the handhelds set up to hide information from us after we entered it. So after declaring a street or an area “done,” the computer hid that information so we couldn’t go back to check, or to compare or verify our work. (So, we learned to avoid marking things “done” until we were absolutely sure we wouldn’t need to check back.)

The handhelds provided an advantage, in that they served to level the information-recording playing field amongst the canvassers. When the GPS was working (which was 99% of the time for me, the only time I had a bad signal was in a very wooded area), it made it quite easy to “map-spot” all the residences, and those spots will be used by USPS workers when delivering the census. Remember that in addition to the easy, obvious residences, there are plenty of residences that aren’t so evident. Cabins at the end of dirt roads, where people live there but have no mailboxes in favor of a PO Box. Trailers parked in driveways with separate families renting space. Rental apartments in the back-rooms of businesses or the basements of libraries. Our handhelds let us map all those places, and made it possible for everyone’s map-spotting to be equivalent. If we had been doing pencil-and-paper mapping, each canvasser’s information would have been different, because each would just be guessing where on the map each house was. Since we all had the same GPS technology, we’re guaranteed to be mapping residences at the same quality level. Also, by using the GPS/handheld technology, we probably cut our work time down by 3/4.

So I definitely think adding the handhelds was a good idea, it’s just too bad they implemented it poorly via a custom-contractor.

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4 Responses to “Investigative Series: Spotlight on Harris Corp. (Part 3)”

  1. OOSier Said than Done Says:

    You can re-do map spots, it’s called QA. Operations are to collect the map spots in order, not backtracking, so that QA can double-check everything. If QA gigs an area, the whole thing is reset and re-canvassed.

    Map spots are collected so that non-response follow-up can take place. Surveys are mailed out. The map spot comes into play if you don’t answer the survey.

    Please double-check your ‘high’ qualifications.

  2. Stephen Robert Morse Says:

    I rarely comment on MyTwoCensus, but I wanted to drive home the point here: Re-doing an entire operation because a canvasser was unable to go back and correct a mistake using the handheld computer makes no sense. The current method is financially ineffective and wastes a significant amount of time. MyTwoCensus stands by our original post.

  3. Lisa Says:

    Stephen–I have plenty of complaints with the handhelds, but lack of access to completed areas is not one of them. Here’s why: First of all, your writer was incorrect in claiming that “after declaring a street or an area “done,” the computer hid that information so we couldn’t go back to check, or to compare or verify our work.” Canvassers received assignment areas to complete; each assignment area comprised one or more blocks. Each block typically included several streets, though not necessarily. A canvasser would canvass one block at a time, marking a block “complete” when finished with it. A completed block could be re-opened and corrected as necessary. However, once all the blocks in an assignment area were done and the canvasser marked the AA “complete,” then the AA and all its information would be removed from the canvassers HHC. This makes sense from a quality assurance perspective, because completed AAs are then sent on to quality control for checking. If canvassers could go in and out of completed areas for their entire tenure, that would mean that multiple departments would have access to the addresses simultaneously, making quality control (and control over the data) impossible.

    Furthermore, quality control would not redo an entire area because of one mistake. We were told that re-canvassing was triggered by a particular error rate (I can’t remember off the top of my head what that was) or by a certain number of incorrect map spots in one area (can’t remember the exact number either–I think it was two or three). I do know that if QC found an error (QC checked a sample of addresses in an area, not the entire area), the canvassing crew would be notified.

    Unfortunately, the person who submitted this account did not think it through. Also, the writer says that the maps will be used by USPS to deliver surveys. That is simply not true.

  4. Anonymous CL Says:

    To expand on Lisa’s good comment, regarding “Also, the writer says that the maps will be used by USPS to deliver surveys. That is simply not true.”:

    The homes that have known regular mailable addresses will be mailed the surveys next year as part of the regular existing mail delivery routes.

    The homes that aren’t covered by normal mail delivery, and the homes that don’t mail back their surveys soon enough, will be visited by enumerators to try to collect/complete surveys, and they will use these maps/map-spots to visit the homes then.