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It’s Just Too Hard

It’s just too difficult for the Hedgemony, so Back to pencil and paper for 2010 census

WASHINGTON (AP) — Technology problems will force the government to count all of the nation’s 300 million residents the old-fashioned way in the 2010 census — with paper and pencil.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez was scheduled to tell a House subcommittee Thursday that the government will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don’t return census forms mailed out by the government.

The change will add as much as $3 billion to the cost of the constitutionally mandated count, pushing the overall cost to more than $14 billion.

The project to develop the computers “has experienced significant schedule, performance, and cost issues,” Gutierrez said in prepared testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “A lack of effective communication with one of our key contractors has significantly contributed to the challenges.

“As I have said before, the situation today is unacceptable, and we have been taking steps to address the issues,” he said.

This was to be the first truly high-tech count in the nation’s history. The Census Bureau has awarded a contract to purchase 500,000 of the computers, at a cost of more than $600 million. The devices, which look like high-tech cell phones, 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 didn’t return their census forms. About a third of U.S. residents are expected not to return the forms.

The United States Postal Service verifies every street address 5½ days a week. The process is known as “delivering the mail.” They have a database. If the Census Bureau asked nicely, they might get to see it.

You could buy something like the XO computers and write a short PhP/mySQL program to load on the the little laptops to collect the data, and then transfer the data through a WiFi at the motel at the end of the day. After the census you could give the computers to schools in the Katrina ravaged Gulf Coast, in Appalachia, in cities, on Native American reservations. Alternately, you could give them to the FBI, as that may be the only way they’ll ever be able to computerize.

13 comments

1 hipparchia { 04.03.08 at 11:44 pm }

those darned contractors! 😈

yabbut… i do like your donate-them-afterwards xo idea, but are they gps-enabled?

as i understand it, either the census bureau was looking for, or harris corp was trying to sell them, purpose-built gps units. also, $1200/unit seems kind of low, even for that kind of volume, even if you use off-the-shelf-out-of-the-box equipment and software [which they could easily have done].

asking the usps for their database: it’s been tried already, plus that doesn’t work for people who use po boxes instead of physical addresses for their mail, or for those living in homeless shelters, etc. i’m not sure what they’re planning to do about people living in abandoned houses or in tents in the woods or in cardboard boxes on top of buildings.

2 Bryan { 04.04.08 at 12:48 am }

In most small towns in New York, where a lot of my extended family lives, you pick up your mail at the Post Office, as there is no delivery, and no street addresses beyond the “Emhof farm” or “the gray house atop the hill, south of the mill run” sort of thing. You would need to ask at the Post Office or town hall to find anyone.

If they want a GPS reading, there are plenty of small GPS units that plug into a USB port. If they do that, when they are done with them, they could give them to the military who apparently can’t afford to buy them for the guys being sent to the war zones.

Last time they had “searchers” who went looking for the homeless and Latinos locally. I sent them to the local churches that specialize in those problems, because I told them that no one was going to buy “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help you” without the church acting as a mediator.

The problem was they wanted a small, hand-held unit that was a GPS, computer, and cell phone. You can buy them, but they are a pain to use. Most of the expensive cell phones have all those features, plus a camera, but they are a pain to type on, and you need special cell networks to use them. You can do this with an iPhone or the newer versions of Blackberry clones and texting, but it would be a royal PITA.

You have to have a semi-large keyboard for usability, and an HTML form would be a familiar type of input.

3 Cookie Jill { 04.04.08 at 1:49 am }

What…no abacuses available?

4 Bryan { 04.04.08 at 2:20 am }

It is so frustrating when dealing with people who don’t understand technology about equipment they want other people to use. If you want to design a new piece of gear, you need to talk with the people who are going to use it, not the people who are going to sit in offices and take credit if it happens to be a success.

Engineers build what the specifications call for. If that’s not what is needed, the specifications are wrong, not the product.

The government never spends the time or money planning a project, which is why they spend so much time and money trying to fix failed projects.

5 Steve Bates { 04.04.08 at 8:53 am }

A quibble for hipparchia:

“plus that doesn’t work for people who use po boxes instead of physical addresses for their mail, …” – hipparchia

Sure it does. Do you think they’ll let you get a PO box in these post-9/11 times without giving your physical address? Even people who already had PO boxes, and had had them for years, were required to refresh the USPS’s info on their physical addresses. Believe me… they know where you live.

Homeless people are a different matter. Wait long enough, in a bad enough economy, and I may have first-hand info on that, too.

6 Steve Bates { 04.04.08 at 9:07 am }

Regarding people who don’t understand the process of designing, engineering, etc. new technology, I recall one client once whose administrative assistant said (a dozen times or so), “I just wanna be able to push a button and… [insert heretofore undiscussed feature here].” I knew there was going to be trouble. Sure enough, she filed a formal claim with her boss that I was not delivering the product. Her boss knew what was going on; she (the boss) called a meeting of all people directly involved, and asked me to show just how the nearly finished product complied with the written specs. I was happy to have the opportunity.

Managers who don’t know how to code programs are just fine with me; in fact, I generally prefer them. Managers who don’t understand the project process, or sometimes even the possibilities and limitations of the technology they’ve chosen, aren’t doing their job.

7 Badtux { 04.04.08 at 2:25 pm }

This is just fucking ridiculous. When I worked for the Census Bureau in 1995, over TEN YEARS AGO, we had this technology working just hunky dory, thank you very much. I was given a laptop that had the addresses of every home in my canvassing region in it, went to those homes, entered their answers into the laptop, presto. Now, granted, the laptops and software we had back then would be laughably obsolete today (they were running MSDOS and a Clipper database application), but c’mon now. This isn’t fuckin’ ROCKET SCIENCE, for cryin’ out loud. Those of us who’ve done this in the past know exactly what it takes, both from the software end and the end user part.

Sounds to me like one of two things happened. Either managers with the Census Bureau kept piling so much nonsense onto the contractor that the contractor couldn’t deliver. Or the contractor pulled a typical EDS-style contract scam of assigning a thousand Tata H1B’s to the project to pull in megabucks, when a half dozen good DBMS programmers could have pulled it off in one three month requirements phase followed by a six-month coding and debugging stint followed by a three month trial to get the last of the bugs and feature lacks resolved. (And yes, I’ve worked DBMS projects of this scale before, and yes, I know what my teams could have done here… we ain’t talkin’ brain surgery, for cryin’ out loud, we’re talking about technology that was perfected in the nineteen fuckin’ SIXTIES, over forty years ago!).

Sigh. The Busheviks continue to prove that they are the party of incompetence…

– Badtux the IT Penguin

8 Bryan { 04.04.08 at 4:08 pm }

People keep asking for “specialty” hardware, when all they need is the software. The smaller the device gets, the more training involved in using it.

I’m getting lazy in my old age and switching to the ‘Net-based stuff, because that allows people to use a browser to provide a comfort level. I may not need anything on the browser, other than the viewer, but it breaks down barriers because it’s there.

The number of times people have had “specialty” equipment built that was actually required to do the job is infinitesimal. It is better to have general equipment, especially for something like the Census which occurs once a decade, or elections, which are normally every other year, because then they have other uses, and they are upgraded more often.

BTW, Badtux, I still have a client who has been using a Clipper program I wrote two decades ago, initially as a dBASE application. It is in daily use, and is currently running on Win XP boxes. I keep trying to move on to other ways of doing it, but they still send me money, and don’t want to alter something that works. If you ever go to SoCal, it produces all of the text portions the Coronado Telephone Book, as well as the accounting functions.

The problem is that people don’t understand how much of anything is hardware and how much is software. When you limit the capabilities in hardware with a specialized design, there is no work-around. If you use a general piece of hardware – well, there are a lot of ways to lie to computers, ask HAL.

9 Moi { 04.04.08 at 7:21 pm }

Ya know, if you’ve ever been canvassing for an election (or something similar), it’s just amazing how many people don’t open the door….. I can’t imagine it would be any different for a census taker!!!

10 distributorcap { 04.04.08 at 7:33 pm }

another winning item from the Bush team!

11 Bryan { 04.04.08 at 8:09 pm }

Actually, Moi, for a lot of people “home” is where you sleep and change clothes to go to your “other” job, so you can afford to pay the rent.

In my neighborhood the only people you see are the kids and the designated “Mom” as everyone else is at work, or looking for work. The 1950’s “Father Knows Best” scheduling for things like the census is amazing.

Be fair, DC, we’ve onlydone this a little over twenty times in two centuries. It takes a while for the Hedgemony to come up to speed and figure out how the make it work for them.

12 Kryten42 { 04.04.08 at 8:57 pm }

Hmmm…

Well, first off… Hahahahahahahahahahahahahaaaaa… PMSL!

OK. Had to get that off my chest, though I will be chuckling for days to come! 😀

One of the very first projects I ever managed completely, was a data recorder for the Queensland Electricity Board. Qld is a huge area, and people are scattered all over. Some homesteads are truly huge and have their own substations! It took a LOT of manpower and time to just get information on their power users. Most of the time they had to use the old chart recorders, but there were serious environmental issues with them in Northern Aus, and they had to be frequently replaced or repaired. We replied to a RFT to design a system that could operate remotely in various ways, from hand-held to reading *meters* from a light aircraft. Took a year from concept to production and was a huge success. I believe they still use them, or an updated version. Qld. has one of the harshest environments known, so they had to be designed to last. It was designed to be flexible as we could see several markets for them. Se sold variations on them to various organizations and the Military. That was in the 80’s. I could easily have designed a census system, and know many others who could do it easily also.

Unbelievable, and yet sadly believable today.

The World has truly gone insane.

13 Bryan { 04.05.08 at 1:19 am }

While the electric company still has meter readers who wander through the yard, the terrible, inefficient, incompetent, government water company has a guy in a pick-up who drives a regular route reading the meters by querying with a piece of gear as he drives by. The device on the meter looks like the old meter, but it has an antenna attached to a plug in the lid. It must be powered by the signal from the reader, because there’s no battery or electrical connection in the box.

I had a number of pieces of gear from Harris, the company involved in this mess, and they all worked as advertised. They tend to be conservative in design and rugged, but they do what they claim to do in their manual. I have every reason to believe that Harris delivered what was ordered, it just wasn’t what was needed.

The last report on this mess had a statement from Harris essentially saying that they were having trouble staying up with the changes that the Census Bureau was making, which is the reason for the delays and cost overrun. Actually, he was a bit more opaque, as befits the spokesman for a company that would like to just finish the contract and never get involved with the customer again.