Michael Thieme, the man who oversees the US Census Bureau’s software and IT teams, knows the Bureau has a target on its back. This year’s national decennial census, the first of which began after the Revolutionary War, is plunging full-force into the 21st century thanks to a multimillion-dollar upgrade project. In the next few months, thousands of Bureau employees, known specifically as enumerators, will fan out across the country to conduct one of the federal government’s largest peacetime efforts. And for the first time ever, instead of using a clipboard and paper, they’ll be counting people with an iPhone app.
“We certainly don’t have any hubris,” said Thieme, the Assistant Director for Decennial Census Programs, Systems and Contracts. “We had to build something that would handle something that’s never been handled before.”
The idea of a census sounds deceptively simple: Just count everybody in the country and count them in the right place. But pulling off a complete and accurate count of the estimated 300 million people living in about 140 million households is an enormous undertaking. While the Bureau is mandated to do this by the Constitution every 10 years (and has designated April 1, 2020 as Census Day, its national day of observation), this year’s efforts are further complicated by thepandemic, which has locked down a vast majority of Americans in their homes.
That won’t stop the enumerators and their critical task. The census does far more than establish redistricting boundaries or determine the number of seats a state receives in the House of Representatives. It’s also used to help companies like Target decide whether to build another location in your neighborhood, if a new freeway onramp should open up along your commute, or if your local senior center or homeless shelter receives enough federal funding for the year. In perhaps the most pertinent example of the census’ importance as the nation grapples with, its data also helps allocate emergency readiness needs.
“Every district from the smallest school board to congressional districts depends on accurate census data,” said Stanford Law School professor and census and redistricting expert Nathaniel Persily. “It is critical to any input of any sensible public policy.”
In an effort to make the door-to-door process, which is the most laborious and expensive part of the census, faster and more efficient, the Bureau is arming 500,000 enumerators with the Apple iPhone 8. But as the census goes mobile, instantaneously beaming respondents’ answers to data centers and cloud servers, it opens itself up to those who may want to access or manipulate such valuable information. The stakes to pull off a census have always been high, but with this year’s adoption of new technological methods, the pressure to succeed is even higher.
A long and tumultuous history
With its $5 billion total IT investment to usher the census into the digital age, the Bureau actually hopes that most residents will not meet an iPhone 8-wielding canvasser. Instead, it wants the majority of people to respond via an online portal, which has been available since mid-March. The portal was primarily built and is maintained by Pegasystems, a Massachusetts-based software company, who also designed the app enumerators will use.
People can also complete the census over the phone or mail. But for households who don’t answer, enumerators will be sent out starting May 28 for what’s called a nonresponse followup. (Due to the coronavirus, the Bureau pushed its original date from May 13.)
The effort to give canvassers a handheld computing device has a long and tumultuous history that reaches back to the 2010 Census. In 2006, the Bureau awarded defense contractor Harris Corporation a $600 million contract to provide 600,000 PDAs. Custom-built by HTC and known as the HTC Census, the plastic blue and grey device had a small display that sat above a set of physical keys. They had GPS-connectivity and were successfully used to track housing coordinates and log addresses of existing and new buildings.
The Bureau also planned for the PDAs to be used for nonresponse followups, but the venture fell apart in the end. According to a July 2011 report of the management challenges of the 2010 Census by then senior research scientist at the Bureau, Daniel Weinberg, the project failed partly because of a lack of rigorous software testing and early underestimates of the cost and time the endeavor would require.
In 2008, the Bureau decided to abandon the project and revert back to paper forms. By then Harris Corporations’ contract ballooned to a total of $1.3 billion, though the overall cost of the 2010 Census came in under budget. The fiasco was “one of the most expensive failed software systems in history,” according to a report by the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center.
For the 2020 Census, which is estimated to cost a total of $15.6 billion, the Bureau has to avoid making the same blunder again.
Weighing the competition
When the Bureau began to consider pitches from potential contractors in 2015, many devices for data collecting out in the field were suggested, including Android phones and tablets. After weighing the competition, the Bureau went with CDW-G in June 2017, a tech company headquartered in Illinois, who pitched the leasing of iPhones.
The iPhone attracted the Bureau in two key ways. First was familiarity. Apple is one of the most popular phone makers in the world, and many of the canvassers, who undergo seven to eight weeks of training and are paid an average of $20 an hour, would already be familiar with iOS. CDW-G initially proposed using the iPhone 6, but once the iPhone 8 went on sale in 2007, the Bureau was able to upgrade to it without an increase in cost.
The iPhone is stable and its operating system has foundational protections that, while not unique to iOS, are still attractive to enterprises. One is Code Signing, a feature that prevents apps from being recognized if they alter their code after installation. Another is Sandboxing, which restricts apps so they can’t “reach” outside and access other apps.