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The Census Bureau Goes Wireless

PDA-toting 2010 census takers will collect household information and beam it up to Uncle Sam through a cellular network.

The U.S. Census Bureau will automate part of its 2010 population count--one of the most expensive and time-consuming parts--with the help of GPS-enabled handheld devices.

Automated data processing actually has a long tradition at the bureau. The agency's need for number crunching prompted statistician Herman Hollerith to invent a mechanical punch-card tabulating system to tally the 1890 U.S. census.

Following mergers with other companies, Hollerith's Tabulating Machine Company, founded in 1896, changed its name in 1924 to International Business Machines Corp., better known today as IBM.

What's new is the bureau's use of wireless technology to automate some of the data collection and verification, which remains relatively primitive compared to post-collection processing. Since the first census in 1790, the raw data collected by census takers originated on paper. And paper surveys are still in use today.

The bulk of respondent data will still be gathered through paper form mailings, the Internet, and telephone calls. But 500,000 PDA-toting census takers will disperse to households that haven't responded to surveys and verify addresses and corresponding GPS coordinates.

Taiwan's High Tech Computer Corp. will make the Windows Mobile-based PDAs. Census takers will transmit data via a Sprint cellular network, and the devices will also have dial-up capability. Harris Corp. was tapped as the systems integrator for the Census Bureau’s Field Data Collection Automation program, which will also require coordinating 500 local census offices and the storage and distribution of data. Partners include Accenture, Dell, and Oracle, among others.

The bureau expects that the automated approach will bring more speed and accuracy over the previous paper-based method for the late, tedious phases of census taking known as non-response follow-up and address canvassing. But at a $600 million price tag, it won’t be cheap. "It's one of the biggest non-wartime operations ever," says Bruce Buckley, director of census business development for Harris.

Given the importance of census data, which determines congressional representation and the allocation of federal funds, any improvement is welcome.

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