GAO: Census computer system may have problems dealing with load

By Jacob Adelman, AP
Friday, April 30, 2010

GAO: Census has computer problem

LOS ANGELES — A computer system that the Census Bureau needs to manage its door-to-door count of the U.S. population remained buggy and prone to crash a day before enumerators were set to begin their work, government officials said Friday.

The bureau’s Paper Based Operations Control System did not function reliably in tests and, despite hardware and software upgrades, “may not be able to perform as needed under full operational loads,” the U.S. Government Accountability Office said in a report.

“So far, it is not as stable as it needs to be,” GAO Strategic Issues Director Robert Goldenkoff said before the start of a congressional hearing on the census.

The paper-based system’s hasty design began in early 2008, after the census bureau scrapped plans to use a handheld-computer method that ended up costing more than $700 million but did not operate adequately.

The system will generate assignments for the roughly 635,000 enumerators hired to visit about 48 million homes to tally people who did not return their census forms by mail.

Instead of getting instructions from the cell-phone like handheld machines, enumerators will receive assignments on printouts.

Returning to paper-based method boosted the cost of the census by about $3 billion that using the handheld computers was supposed to have saved.

Census Director Robert Groves, who stressed during the hearing that he had raised repeated concerns about the computer system’s readiness in past testimony, said the bureau has backup systems in place to deal with technical glitches.

“We will get the census done with this system,” he said after the hearing. “The question is, will everyone be smiling when it’s done.”

Groves said that the problems could slow down the count, prompting the bureau to spend more on staff in order to finish its work. He said the additional staffers would not force the bureau to exceed its budget for the 2010 count.

Groves also said the glitches could also cause delays in the bureau’s efforts to track its progress toward finishing the count.

Aside from the computer system, the GAO said the Census Bureau was well-positioned to complete the door-to-door count, which begins Saturday.

The GAO noted that more than 63 percent of the country’s households had returned their forms by mail, well within the bureau’s target range, and the bureau appeared to have hired enough enumerators to complete the at-home visits.

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