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.

Posts Tagged ‘handheld’

Feature: Real Stories From The Census Bureau

Monday, October 5th, 2009

It’s been a while since we’ve received contributions from real Census Bureau field workers (who obviously need to have their anonymity kept in tact), but as the “Group Quarters Validation” phase of the 2010 Census started last week, our inbox has been overflowing. Those interested in writing for us should not hesitate to send us contributions (details on our contact page). So, here we bring you an account from a Census Bureau employee in New York City:

I worked in the New York City area as a lister during address canvassing and was disappointed with how the operation was conducted. One of my colleagues pointed me to this website some time ago and I felt compelled to share my story. We had alot of the technology glitches in the hand held computers that are widely know by now which included:

* software issues such the program freezes

* transmission problems such as the Sprint cellular network being down and missing assignments and map spots

* hardware issues such as the fingerprint swipe not working

But New York City has its own problems and is a completely different beast in itself. New York City is the most densely populated city in the United States and each neighborhood has its own unique character. The Census Bureau tries to monitor productivity but the very nature of the city makes it very hard to monitor. Since all the units of multi unit apartment buildings are listed separately a lister has to key in every entry. Comparing someone who has an assignment with high rise apartment buildings versus someone who has single family homes is like comparing apples with oranges.

During address canvassing we were instructed to find someone who was knowledgeable about where people live or could live. But locating a knowledgeable respondent was easier said than done. There are small tenement buildings in Chinatown and Harlem brownstones; where there are illegal subdivisions. It is very difficult to gain entry or make contact even if you speak the language. There are also a lot of abandoned construction sites where developers tried to take advantage of the real estate boom after September 11th but found themselves out of money in the current recession.

Luckily for the Census Bureau, the current recession produced a talented pool of very intelligent and highly educated workers. My crew leader was knowledgable and a great leader. From the very beginning he was committed to doing things right. He said that he was continuously told a proper address canvassing operation would be the cornerstone of a successful enumeration. He was thorough and all the work was quality checked by one of the other listers or his assistant. When we couldn’t gain access to a building, he encouraged us to try again and gave us additional work to keep us productive. In the end we had all these partially complete assignments where we had one or buildings we either couldn’t get into or make contact with anyone. However the office was less than empathetic to our thoroughness. Our crew leader told us that Assistant Manager of Field Operations,field operations supervisors (FOS) and crew leaders in other districts would belittle those who were behind. They would constantly say things like ”John’s district is 40% complete why aren’t you 40% complete?” We were told that if we couldn’t gain access to a building after two visits we had to accept what was in the HHC as correct. Many of us were tempted to falsify work and accept what was in the HHC as correct but my crew leader and FOS were adamant about not doing that. One of the other listers found an entire building with over 200 single illegally divided rooms. The HHC had less than 10 units listed in it. If they accepted was in the HHC as true they would of missed over 200 housing units.

At the beginning of the fouth week, my crew leader and several others were written up for being unproductive because they weren’t working fast enough to complete their assignments. They asked the Field Operations Supervisor to approve the writeups. One of the Field Operations Supervisors refused to sign the writeups and they wrote him up also for being insubordinate.

During address canvassing we were to document any additions, or deletes to the address list on an INFO-COMM which is a carbon copy paper. They said that they were hiring clerks to reconcile INFO-COMMs between the production and quality control. The sheer volume of having to go through 2000 pieces of paper is mind boggling. Originally, the plan was to use the INFO-COMMs to help the quality control listers, but they wanted to keep the operation independent so quality control wrote an additional INFO-COMM. All told we wrote out over 2000 INFO-COMMs.

The handheld computer also had glitches. They switched crew leaders in districts that weren’t working fast enough and sometimes just reassigned work. When listers saw their timesheets weren’t approved they submitted additional timesheets electronically. The new crew leader approved it and then they accused these listers of intentionally trying to milk the government clock. They accused half of an entire crew of listers of clocking overtime.

Nonetheless with all the problems most of the listers worked quickly and breezed through their assignments. By the end of the first week we were about 25% done but they decided to train another 100 listers, by the end of the second week we were halfway done and some crews were almost done but they trained another group of listers. Some of these listers were trained and received no field work because there was none. All told we trained over 100 listers who received less days of work than the four and half days worth of training they received.

The thing to realize is that this was a poorly planned operation from the very beginning. The Census Bureau will waste money for government contracts on hand held computers that are shoddy and unreliable and training staff for which there is no work. But they will try to cut corners when it comes to their mission of counting each person accurately. In order to try to save money and finish ahead of other regions they used intimidation and the threatening of employees. I’m glad that Field Operations Supervisor stood up to the higher ups because like my crew leader said to me…they’re just of bullies.

When the address canvassing operation finished up it was alleged that some of the crew leaders and field operations supervisors told their listers since there was no regard to quality that they could skip making contact even going as far as not conducting field work and enter the units at home. There is no way that listers who were reassigned work magically gained access to buildings people couldn’t access for weeks unless they accepted what was in the HHC as true. The crew leaders and field supervisors who finished first were rewarded with additional work. Those who finished last were sometimes “written up” as unproductive and the office terminated their employment.

Luckily this story has a happy ending. My crew leader didn’t fire any of us for clocking overtime. What they found was that the payroll system was mistakenly rewarding people overtime if they worked over eight hours during a work day even though they were below forty hours in a week. Someone was able to view the timesheet submissions in the office and prove all these listers weren’t clocking overtime. It was rumored that someone who discovered this was the same FOS who refused to sign the writeups.

As for thousands of INFO-COMMs they are sitting in the office file cabinets gathering dust maybe someday someone will go through them. I highly doubt it given the sheer magnitude. I think my crew leader was incredible. And from what I heard from some of the listers that met him their Field Operations Supervisor was even better. I never got the chance to see him but I am honored to have worked with someone who is willing to jeopardize his job for what was morally right. I am surprised I received a phone call the other day to work in the next operation Group Quarters Validation. But I’m pretty sure that my crew leader or FOS won’t be returning anytime soon.

Live-blogging Philadelphia’s 2010 Census hearing…

Monday, May 11th, 2009

12:57 – 25 people at this meeting…poor turnout…90% work for the Census Bureau…Sen. Carper not here…will it start on time?

1:04 – Sen. Carper doing introductions…he shook my hand and introduced himself earlier.

1:05 – Sen. Carper discussing stats about 1.4 million Americans working for Census Bureau (largest peacetime hiring effort)

1:06 -  6 million people missed in 2000 count. 1.3 million people counted twice.

1:07 – Hispanics miscounted 4 times as often as whites in 2000 says Carper

1:08 – Mayor Nutter going to speak…he’s in a rush and has to leave in 10 min.

1:10 – Michael Nutter says Philly will lose $2,300 per person not counted in 2010 Census

1:12 – Challenges for Philly: Locating households, encouraging people to return their forms…accurate address listings from US Postal service very important.

1:13 – Nutter: Master list doesn’t have 56,000 addresses that Philly City Gvnt reviewed and updated for Postal Service

1:15 – Nutter: Afro-Americans disproportionately represented in economically disadvantaged and Latinos in linguistically challenged areas

1:15 – Linguistic issues must be addressed by Census Bureau. INS and deportation issues must be addressed.

1:16 – improve response rate: 1. issue exec order 2. city-wide campaign 3. establish multicultural network

1:17 – Only through raising public consciousness that we can make this work – Nutter says his office will help out.

1:17 – Nutter leaves, Sen. Carper thanks Nutter

1:18- 3 minute video will be shown now…forgot my popcorn

1:19 – This is the same propaganda video stuff that’s available on YouTube on the Census Bureau’s channel…but informative!

1:21 – Still awake, still here…they’re playing sentimental “a photograph, a portrait of hopes and dreams” theme song…is Sen. Carper shedding a tear?

1:23 – De. Congressman Castle talking…discussing differences between allocating $ based on population rather than earmarks and pork legislation etc.

1:26 – Boring Del. Congressman Castle talking about why people don’t respond…this is called preaching to the choir, everyone here works for the Census Bureau

1:30 – Now Mayor Baker of Wilmington is speaking…making jokes, got no laughs

1:33 – 50% of Wilmington residents live in rented homes…this=bigger problems for counting.

1:34 – Mayor Baker thinks door to door messaging is important…like political campaigns.

1:36 – They make Joe Biden jokes about talking off the cuff…

1:37 – Baker says, “Who cares what Rush Limbaugh and FoxNews think” now that they’re in the minority…

1:38 – Baker makes more jokes and finishes his statement. Back to Sen. Carper…

1:39 – Philadelphia Managing Director Camille Cates Barnett is speaking…really sad story about her:

1:40 – Barnett: Census data helps draw City Council districts…she cites 2007 Brookings study – $377 billion allocated based on 2010 Census

1:41 – Barnett: For every person we miss counting, $2,263 in funding lost…

1:44 – Barnett whips out 1 page strategic plan for Philly census…

1:45 – Add 75,000 residents in the next 5-10 years=Goal for City of Philly

1:46 – Since 2000 Philly has added 22,000 converted housing units…56,000 additional addressees have been handed over to Census Bureau from Philly.

1:48 – Economic downturn=people get displaced…complicates counting process.

1:49 – Only 23% of AfroAmerican Philadelphians have high school diplomas and 13% have college degrees.

1:52- Barnett repeats every single thing Mayor Nutter already said…eyelids shutting…

1:53 – Barnett finished with positive message…back to Sen. Tom Carper

1:55 – Carper asks Barnett what she learned from 1990 and 2000 Census.

1:56 – Barnett says major issue in previous Census operations=accurately ensuring population growth is properly recorded

1:59 – Congressman Castle talking about working with clergy…he references US Marshalls getting ministers to have criminals confess.

2:01 – Castle asks if clergy can be of help to get people out…Barnett talks about faith-based groups for outreach.

2:03 – Congressman Castle asks how landlords can help w/ Census. He admits he doesn’t know the legality of this.

2:05 – yadda yadda yadda – hopefully MyTwoCensus gets to ask some HARD-HITTING QUESTIONS. EVERYONE is falling asleep (woman next to me)

2:13- Carper’s aide just passed him a note…he’s now ending with Barnett and Baker…maybe abruptly ending mtg?

2:16 – New panel now on the Dais — Tom Mesoundbourg (acting Census Director) speaking…invoking founding fathers. Also on the Dais now: - Pat Coulter, Executive Director, Philadelphia Urban League

- Norman Bristol-Colon, Executive Director, Governor’s Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, State of Pennsylvania

- Wanda M. Lopez, Executive Director, Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic Affairs, State of Delaware

2:20 – Mesounbourg LIES! he says operations are going smoothly and address canvassing in philly almost done! – (THE INSPECTOR GENERAL REPORT FROM MAY 09 DISAGREES) READ THE MOST RECENT UPDATE:

2:25: Mesounbourg concludes “Our operations are not intended to count many of us, they are intended to count all of us.”

2:26 – Norman Bristol Colon now talking…he has a heavy Latino accent…hard to understand!

2:27 – More Puerto Ricans living in USA than in Commonwealth of Puerto Rico.

2:30 – Colon urges Census Bureau to have a plan to count undocumented and documented residents in the same way and counts EVERYONE.

2:31 – Colon insists that Census data remains private and is not released to the INS or other immigration officials.

2:33 – This is pretty much turning into a pro-immigration rally…Colon passionately speaking…only 20 people remain in the room here.

2:34 – Colon says that redistricting will help Latino populations so they can have more representation in gvnt.

2:36 – Colon finished speaking…now hearing from Pat Coulter, head of Urban League Philly – Urban League and Census Bureau have worked together since 1970.

2:37 – Coulter just quoted Dick Polman, my journalism Professor at Penn!

2:38 – Here’s the article Coulter quoted from:

2:42 – Coulter finished speaking, now last but not least, Wanda Lopez, Executive Director, Governor’s Advisory Council on Hispanic Affairs, State of Delaware

2:46 – Wanda Lopez is very well spoken, but unfortunately no new information added.

2:49 – Congressman Castle asking questions then “calling it a day” as Sen. Carper put it.

2:53 – Congressman Castle asks if celebrities can do public announcements to promote the Census…Director Mesenbourg says the Bureau is pursuing this.

2:54 – Mesenbourg says a PR firm has been hired to do this…which firm is this? Coulter mentions Oprah as possible spokeswoman.

2:55 – Wanda Lopez suggests using local radio in addition to ads on Univision.

2:56 – Castle thanks panel. Carper ending mtg. now…NO HARD-HITTING ISSUES ADDRESSED!

2:57 – Carper says President and First Lady and possibly Sasha and Malia could be used to promote 2010 Census…Wondering: Will they be counted in Chicago or DC?

2:58 – Carper acknowledges problems with handheld computers and asks Mesenbourg to weigh in on correction of problems.

2:59 – Mesenbourg: Handheld only used for address canvassing NOT the non-response follow-up operation in May 2010. Too risky to do that he says

3:01 – 8 million addresses given to Census Bureau from state/local gvnts says Mesenbourg

3:02 – “introduced risk mitigation strategies” – aka 5 different strategies to reduce risk for address canvassing…

3:03 – Mesenbourg says in this economy only 12% of hired applicants didnt show up once they were hired.

3:03 – This explains why we are so far aheadin our address canvassing operation…”highly skilled work force” enables us to finish operation earlier than planned.

3:04 – Carper addresses the Inspector General’s report from earlier to Mesenbourg about failures that we mentioned earlier (top article on

3:05 – Mesenbourg acknowledges that in 6 out of 15 locations that Inspector General visited, the Census Bureau employees were not following orders.

3:06 – Mesenbourg deflects the criticism that Carper addressed — saying that all employees received a text message on their handhelds to follow procedures more closely.

3:08 – Sen. Carper asks more hard-hitting questions (finally)! Impressed that he addressed these issues, though not satisfied w/ responses…

3:13 – Closing statements from Castle and Carper before they “call it a day.”

3:14 – Carper quotes Richard Nixon: “The only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who don’t do anything.”

3:15 – Carper says his office was originally worried about lack of technology used in this headcount, but his fears have now been alleviated.

3:17 – Carper thanks everyone who joined us and Census Bureau staff. Carper quotes Lamar Alexander “hearings should be called talkings.”

The Insider’s Guide To Training For The 2010 Census

Thursday, April 30th, 2009

With hundreds of thousands of Americans working for the Census Bureau, we at MyTwoCensus are surprised that there haven’t been more first-hand accounts of life on the job appearing throughout the blogosophere. Yesterday, we were able to read a great behind the scenes account of life training for the 2010 Census on Ryan’s Ridiculous Real World blog. Here’s Ryan Pope’s interesting and thought-provoking post:

By Ryan Pope

Last week I completed my training to become a Quality Control Lister for the US Census Bureau. What this means (in English) is I am now qualified to spot-check and verify address lists already compiled by the Bureau by physically canvassing neighborhoods and entering the appropriate information into my nifty four thousand dollar handheld computer. This may sound simple enough, but as is so often the case, the training I underwent last week turned out to be something of an adventure.

My training took place in the rec room of a family planning/continuing education center and computer lab in Oceanside, and I trained with 22 other people who likewise passed the test to qualify for Census work. The training started with our CL (crew leader) informing us that we were training for Phase One of the Census, (which basically consists of gathering address information for neighborhoods throughout San Diego county) and that we would complete our training by Thursday. Unfortunately, he told us, it was unlikely any of us would be called out into the field because Phase One of the Census was scheduled to be completed by Monday, thus the only way we would put our training to use would be if someone contracted swine flu and called in sick because they couldn’t finish canvassing their assignment area. After receiving this bit of good news, our CL informed us that training would consist of him reading a giant manual to us verbatim, and that this was unavoidable because the Census Bureau wanted to make sure all its staff received the exact same training. Thus we were essentially being paid $16.50 an hour to sit in a room and listen to a written description of how to do something we would never end up doing in the first place.

You would think this would put people at ease during the training session since, in all likelihood, they would never be called upon to perform the tasks being discussed in class. Much to my dismay I found the exact opposite to be the case: several people in my class were practically freaking out and asking question after question about what to do in different situations. For example, we had one ten minute class discussion on what to do if there’s a big scary dog barking in the yard of a house you need to canvass, and what to do if there’s a medium sized dog that isn’t barking but looks like he could be mean sitting in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and what to do if there’s a small sized dog that is yapping aggressively at you in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and what to do if there’s a a small sized dog that isn’t yapping AND a big sized dog that isn’t yapping in the yard of a house you want to canvass, and so on and so forth. Admittedly, some of the concepts being covered were difficult to grasp, like how to determine the proper code for different residences and enter the information properly into the computer (for example, an apartment complex is coded differently than a group of condos), but these people were totally going overboard.

The questions really got out of hand once our CL distributed handheld computers for us to train with. We were supposed to have one HHC (handheld computer) per student, but it just so happened that after we all finished being fingerprinted on the first day, my CL’s Supervisor showed up and whisked away 18 of the devices, leaving us with four for the entire class to share. For some reason I am yet to understand, my CL chose to assign each of these computers to four of the oldest people in the class. Since these septuagenarians can barely use a cell phone, they were totally lost at sea: a group of chimpanzees would’ve been more tech savy than these people. Thus after every single step of the training, one of these geysers would shout, "WAIT, how did you get that!" or "My screen doesn’t look like that, I think my computer’s broken," or "Where’s the ‘on’ button?" They always asked these questions with a certain amount of panic and desperation in their voices, as if they were asking for directions to the exit of a burning building. They were totally tense and stressed out about using the computers before we even got started, and their intuitive skills (in terms of technology) were for shit, thus there wasn’t a single time all four of them were able to follow along and successfully complete the next step without any assistance. As you can imagine, this made for some riveting action for those of us who did not have handheld computers and had to just listen and try to follow along while the greatest generation suffered a nervous breakdown. The thing is, this wasn’t really their fault; they were all nice people who just didn’t feel comfortable with new technology. My point is this was easily predictable and thus could’ve been easily prevented. Unfortunately, once we started trying to guide the four blind mice through the lesson, we couldn’t stop because the Census Bureau training had to be followed verbatim.

As time wore on I started to people watch and observe the other folks in the room. I’ve always found it interesting to observe how group dynamics work, and it didn’t take me long to breakdown our class into three distinct groups. For our training session, all the people in sitting in the front formed group one. They were all the brown nosers and constant participators who dragged our training session on painfully slow with their illogical butt-kissing (who sucks up during training for a job they’ll never be required to perform?) and question asking (in retrospect I should thank them since we were all being paid by the hour). One lady in this group was working particularly hard to let everyone know that she was deeply engrossed in the material and following along, so much so that she’d answer every question our trainers asked us before anyone else had a chance. It didn’t take me long to dub her "the TA."

I sat in the second row with the second group of people. We were the laid-back mildly intrigued people who followed along but weren’t above having side conversations or cracking jokes, or making sarcastic comments about the butt smoochers in the front. I was fortunate to be seated next to two friendly ladies on my left who enjoyed a good laugh, so we kept ourselves entertained by trading quips about the training material, our classmates, and the whole training charade we were being put through. Unfortunately I was considerably less blessed with the person to my right, a middle aged math who hadn’t bathed for a longtime (if ever) with a penchant for eating stinky foods (the first day he had chilly cheese fries for lunch, while on the second day he opted for the healthier option and ate three friend burritos…when I offered him a piece of gum for fear that anymore rank breath might singe my eyebrows and cause irreparable damage to my vision, I was politely rebuffed…he explained to me he didn’t want any sugar-free gum since he didn’t trust artificial sweetners!) and close-talking. Although he really was a nice person, he was constantly confused during our training sessions, so he’d repeatedly lean in close to me to ask me what page we were on, or to see which answer I’d circled in our workbook, or to ask me a question about how to operate the handheld computer. This made for an extremely long day since sitting next to this fellow required me to harnass all of my mental faculties and powers of concentration simply to resist the urge to vomit.

The colleague ot my right really belonged with the third group of people. These were the people in the back row who, by and large were either disinterested or hopelessly confused. This wasn’t really their fault because there was so much talking going between the trainer at the front, the butt kissers and question askers in the first row, the joke tellers and laughers in the middle row, and all the people having side conversations throughout the room, it was practically impossible for the people in the back to follow the lesson and understand what was going on.

This was too bad for the people in the back because they missed some truly hilarious moments. One such event was when our trainer explained that while canvassing a neighborhood, we should always walk to the right. "Whatever you do, don’t turn left!" The Census Bureau gives you this instruction because they want you to make sure you locate and map every single residence; thus they want you to go in one direction, however, you could just as easily choose left as that direction. Anyway, the funny part was the example our trainer gave to demonstrate this actually required you to turn left to walk around an obstruction in the road before continuing to canvass. However our trainer refused to concede this point and instead gave a complicated (and inaccurate) demonstration of how she was able to walk and turn and keep the houses on her right without ever turning left. It was like watching Derek Zoolander make a left turn by spinning in 270 degrees to the right.

However the funniest thing we heard during our training was from our other trainer. While we were all looking at a map together, she was explaining that north will always be marked in the same direction on all maps. Naturally someone in the front row asked a question about this, to which she responded, “I know, it can be confusing. I used to live in New York so it took me awhile to get used to where north is out here since it’s the opposite out there, but just remember, on all maps north will be the same direction.” My colleagues in the second row and I scratched our heads in amazement, did she really just say that? Was she really suggesting that in New York north is a different direction than in California? What, is Canada below the US out there but above it here? We were in stitches. We finally figured out that she was referring to the direction of north in relation to the water (i.e. is the ocean on your left or your right?) but it came out funny.

Other funny moments were the result of reading the training materials verbatim. The best was when we were instructed to identify a vacant mobile home space as a residence if we observed any evidence of “permanent grass or permanent dirt.” Who the hell knows what “permanent dirt” is? Naturally when one of the folks in the front row asked this question, our trainer didn’t have an answer.

However I think my favorite part of the entire training were the acronyms. The US Census Bureau has an acronym for fricking everything. As we got further and further into the training, the number of acronyms grew, and so we started to see sentences like this one, "Remember, during QC canvassing, after performing DBQ on all HU’s and OLQ’s in your AA, DV will begin ASAP. If it does not, immediately contact your CL at HQ." Laughing to myself I imagined using these acronyms on poor unsuspecting residents: "Look, I need to determine if this is an HU or an OLQ for my AA to complete QC for my CL at HQ, so give me the information ASAP you SOB!"

Overall the training went fine. I was very fortunate in the fact that both my trainers and the other trainees were extremely nice people. Still, after reading a lot of Kafka lately, I couldn’t help but laugh at the idea of knowingly training to perform a job I would never be called upon to perform. Fortunately I passed the rigorous exam (I missed one question out of thirty, and to be honest, I’m a little upset by this because I can’t figure out which one I could’ve gotten wrong) at the end of training and thus certified as a Quality Control Lister. Who knows, maybe I’ll get lucky and someone will call in sick with swine flu and I’ll be called into duty. We can only hope.

Note: The following piece does not represent the opinions of, Stephen Robert Morse or Evan Goldin. The views expressed are those of the author. That said, MyTwoCensus welcomes written, video, photographic, and multimedia contributions from any individual with a 2010 Census-related story to tell.