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.

USA Today: Census software plagued by defects

Census Director Robert Groves is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.
Enlarge image Enlarge By Carolyn Kaster, AP
Census Director Robert Groves is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill next week.

A key software system for the 2010 Census is behind schedule and full of defects, and it will have to be scaled back to ensure an accurate count of the U.S. population, according to a government watchdog report.Even as Census takers have begun the decennial head count in Alaska and other remote areas, the system is still not ready to handle the paperwork and payroll data for what eventually will be a half-million Census takers.

The software to schedule, deploy and pay Census takers is at risk, according to the report released this week by the inspector general for the Commerce Department, which includes the Census Bureau. If changes are not made, the Census risks ballooning costs, delays and inaccuracies.

The Census Bureau must deliver a complete count of the nation’s population to President Obama by Dec. 31. The counts are used to allocate each state’s seats in the House of Representatives every 10 years and more than $400 billion a year in federal aid.

Census forms will be mailed to more than 130 million households next month. One-third are not expected to send them back. Census workers will have to visit all of those addresses to collect demographic information.

The Census got a late start designing a paper-processing system because it initially had planned to equip workers with handheld computers to record data from households that don’t mail back questionnaires.

Those devices were scrapped in 2008 because of technical problems, forcing the bureau to fall back on a paper-based system for door-to-door follow-up visits, the Census’ most expensive phase. So far, the Census Bureau has budgeted $2.74 billion for this phase of the operation and $411 million more in case costs rise.

“This is a risky endeavor,” Census Director Robert Groves says. “We know it. We’re watching it very carefully. We’re trying to manage it.”

Because time is running out, the Census Bureau must work around the system’s shortcomings, according to the inspector general. That could mean printing more administrative forms and speeding up worker training.

The glitches continue despite staff “working two shifts per day, extended hours, weekends and holidays,” the report says.

The audit found that the software had 80 critical defects on Jan. 12, up from 26 a month earlier. Both testing and development were about three weeks behind schedule at that point.

“We now are facing trade-off decisions,” says Groves, who is scheduled to testify before Senate and House committees next week.

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6 Responses to “USA Today: Census software plagued by defects”

  1. HermHollerith Says:

    This news report tells us that Congress needs to decide if the 2010 Census should be cancelled.
    Census management does not understand “The Mythical Man-Month:”,
    a book on software enginneering by Fred Brooks.
    See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mythical_Man-Month

    Rather than call Director Groves to testify at a hearing,
    Congress should seekand follow the advise of several expert software engineers.

    On another project not mentioned in the story above,
    Census management slowed software development by adding more contract programmers to a project.

    Other census software development projects may be failing catastrophically.

  2. John Coffey Says:

    This is my third census as a worker. The problems are at the top, not where shoe leather hits the sidewalk. Mr. Bush was ambivalent, to put it mildly, about the 2010 census. He is the one who had 8 of the last 10 years to examine Census 2000 results and issues, and who approved Harris as the contractor on the hand held computers and related servers. Harris was a defense contractor, and “low balled” the bid counting on cost overruns being routinely approved as in DoD contracts. That didn’t happen. The GPS didn’t match up with the maps. Etc Etc ETC. You get the point. If more time is needed, then so be it. Census operations are already scheduled into most of 2011. We need to get this done now, and sort out how to plan and execute 2020 in a timely fashion.

    I look forward to my fourth census, G_d willing, with purpose and hope.

  3. Ex-IT Says:

    HQ managers that are hoping that bugs will be fixed and the situation will improve are delusional. But that did not stop them from placing even more unrealistic production goals on the Local Census Offices. March and April are going to be hell for Census workers in the field and local offices.

  4. Anonymous CL Says:

    HermHollerith, the one thing they cannot do is ‘cancel the Census’. (LOL)

    They have to pull this mess together somehow, even if it’s not able to work anywhere near as smoothly/efficiently as it should have if things had been prepared properly without the problems such as John Coffey summarized.

  5. HermHollerith Says:

    Anonymous CL,

    No doubt you are a hard-working and honest person who deserves a government paycheck.

    But picture this. An enumerator is assigned to an area with a 24 percent mail response rate.
    After working one week, the enumerator brings the response rate up to 33 percent. Said
    enumerator does not get paid by the buggy payroll software and walks off the job.
    The Census Bureau does not replace the unpaid enumerator.
    While we should not call it fraudulent if the Census Bureau imputes the population count
    for the remaining 67 percent of houses, apartments, mobile homes, etc.
    we should not call it a good count either.

    The scenario above assumes all other software systems are working properly.
    However, if one or more additional systems, like the failed handheld computer,
    does not work properly, will the Census Bureau ask Congress for more time? Not likely!

    If there are software systems failures the Census Bureau can hide,
    the Census Bureau can misrepresent the population count.

  6. Anonymous CL Says:

    There are certainly many pitfalls, and things should have been prepared much better. Several of my paychecks have been screwed up. But ‘the show must go on’ regardless, as it is Constitutionally mandated to occur every ten years. No choice but to keep going.