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Glitches force Census to scrap high-tech plans for 2010 count

Data collectors to revert to using paper and pencil

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Stephen Ohlemacher
Associated Press / April 4, 2008

WASHINGTON - Stumbling over its multibillion-dollar plans for a high-tech census, the government says it will go back to counting the nation's 300 million people the old-fashioned way, with paper and pencil.

Help wanted: 600,000 temporary workers to do the job.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told Congress yesterday that his department will scrap plans to use hand-held computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who do not return the census forms that come in the mail.

That is one of a number of changes that will add as much as $3 billion to the constitutionally mandated 2010 count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion.

This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation's history. The Census Bureau had awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The contract is now projected to balloon to $1.3 billion, even though the bureau will scale back its purchase to 151,000 computers.

The devices, which look like fancy cellphones, will still be used to verify every residential street address in the country, using global positioning system software.

But workers going door to door will not be able to use them to collect information from the residents who did not return their census forms. About a third of US residents are expected not to return the forms. The Census Bureau plans to hire and train nearly 600,000 temporary workers to do the canvassing.

Gutierrez attributed many of the problems to "a lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors."

"As I have said before, the situation today is unacceptable, and we have been taking steps to address the issues," said Gutierrez, who oversees the Census Bureau.

In fact, interviews, congressional testimony, and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage the contract for the hand-held computers. Census officials are being accused of doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, The Harris Corp., which is based in Florida.

The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina. Also, the computers were not initially programmed to transmit the large amounts of data necessary.

At one point, the Census Bureau identified more than 400 new or clarified technical requirements for the computer system, Gutierrez said.

He said the Census Bureau was unaccustomed to working with an outside vendor on such a large contract.

For example, he said, the original contract called for paying Harris $36 million to operate a help desk to assist census-takers who have computer problems. That figure has since jumped to $217 million.

"It was a bad estimate. I can't think of a better way to say it," Gutierrez said. "Harris gave us the number. We accepted it. It was totally underestimated."

The Harris Corp. issued a statement saying it still looks forward to playing a large role in the 2010 count.

"The wireless hand-held devices are part of a larger, multifaceted process to move from a 'paper culture' to a more automated culture appropriate for the 21st century," the company said. Despite the problems, company officials said they were "encouraged that automation and the adoption of new technology is moving forward, even if in a more narrowly focused fashion."

Marc Raimondi, company spokesman, said the cost of the contract grew as the requirements increased.

"The increased funding is required to cover additional sites, equipment, software, and functions added by the bureau to the program in January of this year," Raimondi said in an e-mail. "The hand-held devices make up only a portion of the overall automation program."

Representative Alan B. Mollohan, chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee, said the Census Bureau and Harris Corp. "contributed to today's crisis." The Census Bureau's failure to address problems with the computers early on, however, has "turned the crisis into the emergency that we now face," Mollohan said.

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