Sprint has won an exclusive contract to provide mobile technology for next year’s US Census. But while in many ways it will be the most high-tech census, there is one change back to more old-fashioned methods.
The 140,000 field workers employed by census “system integrator” Harris already carry mobile devices running on the Sprint network. The deal announced today allows the firm to use Sprint’s technology to run a network to connect local census offices, gives them use of more than 1,500 security devices, and gives 1,500 workers mobile broadband cards.
The field workers carrying out the census will carry custom devices for collecting data which include both GPS (so they can verify addresses without needing printed maps) and fingerprint recognition to avoid tampering.
The US census is carried out every ten years. While most people mail back their forms, the field workers visit those who don’t do so by the deadline and collect the information in person. This is the first time those workers will use computers rather than a clipboard.
After an unsuccessful test run in 2007, there had been plans to drop the computer idea. However, officials later concluded the root cause of the problems had been management rather than technology and decided to go ahead with the scheme.
Ironically the public will be taking a step backwards this time round. In 2000, citizens were allowed to fill in their details online for the first time. The Census Bureau, which oversees the process, decided to scrap that and make 2010 paper-only. It decided the online version increased security risks without cutting costs or increasing response rates.
Meanwhile a political change may reduce awkwardness for those behind the technology of the census data aggregation. In 2000, the census did not ask any questions about sexual orientation. However, an unknown number of gay and lesbian couple listed themselves as married. As federal law prevented government agencies “recognizing” such marriages, officials decided to set the database up to automatically change such entries to “unmarried couple”, causing some controversy.
With several states having legalized gay marriages since then, the 2010 census will count such partnerships. However, officials are still deciding whether to set up the system to distinguish between civil unions (where the partners refer to themselves unofficially as married) and legally recognized same-sex marriages.