Beta
×

Welcome to the Slashdot Beta site -- learn more here. Use the link in the footer or click here to return to the Classic version of Slashdot.

Thank you!

Before you choose to head back to the Classic look of the site, we'd appreciate it if you share your thoughts on the Beta; your feedback is what drives our ongoing development.

Beta is different and we value you taking the time to try it out. Please take a look at the changes we've made in Beta and  learn more about it. Thanks for reading, and for making the site better!

Computers May Thwart 2010 Census

Zonk posted more than 6 years ago | from the how-1950s dept.

Government 287

smooth wombat writes "With the Constitutionally mandated census of 2010 just around the corner, it appears the Commerce Department's attempt to use handheld computers to gather census information may not come to fruition. Originally, the contract was awarded at a cost of $596 million to Harris Corporation. However, the GAO has now estimated the revised contract, now costing $647 million, could grow to $2 billion and the equipment may still not work properly. There is consideration that the paper and pencil method might have to be employed to complete the census."

Sorry! There are no comments related to the filter you selected.

Any history buffs out there? (4, Interesting)

pegr (46683) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873218)

Recall that Herman Hollerith came up with punched cards for the 1890 census. He founded the company that became IBM. Here's some linky goodness [wikipedia.org] .

Re:Any history buffs out there? (4, Funny)

xav_jones (612754) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873260)

Yeah punched cards seem to have worked well for Florida ...

Re:Any history buffs out there? (3, Funny)

Creepy Crawler (680178) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873314)

Yo Chad, whats hangin?

Re:Any history buffs out there? (2, Interesting)

Lilith's Heart-shape (1224784) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873288)

I remember now. I remember how it started. I can't remember yesterday. I just remember doing what they told me.

Re:Any history buffs out there? (2, Insightful)

Kozz (7764) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874164)

I remember now. I remember how it started. I can't remember yesterday. I just remember doing what they told me.
Politicians say "no" to drugs, while we pay for wars in Saudi Arabia.

Re:Any history buffs out there? (1)

hardburn (141468) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873304)

More to the point, the 1890 census wasn't expected to be completed with pencil and paper before it was time to start the 1900 census. So what hope do they have this time around?

Conservatives are half right (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873926)

When conservatives continuously tell everyone that government doesn't work, they are half right. Conservatives IN GOVERNMENT never work.

Occam's Razor- just get all the conservatives out of government, and the problems magically disappear!

Anyone have any idea... (3, Insightful)

Darundal (891860) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873222)

...what accounts for the differences in the estimate and the cost? What cost(s) were underestimated?

Re:Anyone have any idea... (1)

Brian Gordon (987471) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873256)

The cost of government. I could probably throw this thing together myself in my spare time in a month, but when you bring in executives and contracts and managers, everything gets muddled up.

Re:Anyone have any idea... (2, Insightful)

homey of my owney (975234) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873810)

This is what decision by committee yields.

Re:Anyone have any idea... (0, Troll)

modecx (130548) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874156)

This is what decision by committee yields.

Which is why I've always said that the monotheistic God of certain religions can't be one particular god, but a committee of gods in a perpetual circle jerk. What other severely screwed-up creative force could have come up with things like the duck-billed platypus--or Jack Thompson?

Re:Anyone have any idea... (1)

CaptainPatent (1087643) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873270)

Anyone have any idea what accounts for the differences in the estimate and the cost?
Um... the US government?!

Re:Anyone have any idea... (5, Insightful)

petermgreen (876956) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873358)

Government departments often have regulations that require them to put contracts out to tender and give them to the lowest bidder to prevent people handing out government contracts to thier friends.

The problem is if they put them out for bidding as fixed price contracts they probablly wouldn't get any bids and if they did those bids would be very high. So the bids are only estimates. Of course this makes the bidding a farce as everyone tries to put in the lowest estimate they can and sponge more money later once the governement department is locked in.

Re:Anyone have any idea... (1)

jo42 (227475) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873640)

a) Sheer incompetence.
b) Sheer greed to milk the Gooberment contracts for all they are worth.
c) All of the above.

Re:Anyone have any idea... (1)

Gat0r30y (957941) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873802)

The impression I got was that it takes ~ an hour to get acquainted with the systems. Apparently some of the people in their test group just couldn't figure it out. And, since this is the government, instead of fixing the problem by requiring individuals who are qualified and competent to administer the census, they are gonna try to change the hardware and software of the device to I suppose fit their needs better? Yea, that sounds about right.

Open source (3, Funny)

Missing_dc (1074809) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873226)

The bloat is occurring because the project is not open-source, it could be done for pennies, but would take 20 years to complete.

Re:Open source (2, Informative)

KevMar (471257) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873454)

I have this gut feeling that it would only compound the issue.

The article says they only had a 1% failure rate in field tests. I bet the crew of 20 to 30 year old tech guys had no issues with it. They under esimated the end users. Yes, some systems are very simple but you still find people that can't figure them out. Not only were more computers "breaking", the support calls would have been greater then expected.

With electronic, you now have to pay for the support of that electronic component.

1% error (4, Insightful)

Red Jesus (962106) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873228)

He also said the computers actually are easy to use, with a failure rate of less than 1 percent when tested in the field.
One percent of three hundred million is three million.

Re:1% error (5, Insightful)

eepok (545733) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873446)

Ya, people are really bad when it comes to big numbers. I was a part of a research study as an undergraduate with the following premise:

You're on a jury for a murder case with the scenario that a tan/brown man seen running away from a murder scene on a college campus. There was not enough of the attacker's DNA at the scene, but they were able to extract a DNA derivative that has matched that of a tan man in custody. Given that this derivative has a 99.9% successful rate, do you feel comfortable convicting the man in custody.

I was the only one in my group of 12 to say "No, I will not convict based on this evidence." No one else understood that .1% = 1/1000. Nor did they realize that our university alone had 20,000+ people on the campus at any time let alone that it was in the middle of a city of 200,000+.

Most people know what "fifty" is. Many know what "one hundred" is. Few understand what "one thousand" is. Too few understand the effects of millions, billions, and trillions.
There's no way I'd convict with a .1% error, there's no way I'd accept a 1% error in the business of millions.

How to get big numbers across (4, Informative)

sconeu (64226) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873620)

Many people don't understand big numbers... My favorite way to get across just how big ONE BILLION (pinky-to-mouth) is, is as follows:

A rich man wanted his wife to stop bugging him for money. So he gave her $1Million, and told her to spend $1000 a day.

Three years later, she came back, and said she was out of money. So he gave her $1Billion.

She didn't bug him again for 3000 years.

Re:1% error (1)

MikeURL (890801) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873858)

Come on now! If that is the ONLY evidence then I agree with you. However a murder case usually comes with other evidence like the tan man in question was her boyfriend and was screaming his head off the week before about how he was gonna "kill the b_tch". That 99.9% match goes a LONG way toward removing reasonable doubt. In fact, with 99.9% of the doubt removed you don't need much more evidence at all to get to the point where doubt is unreasonable.

Re:1% error (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22874146)

Alright, so when the test determines every last one of the 20000 tan/brown men on your campus to be guilty, then the twenty who are actually innocent will have a right to complain. Meanwhile, you're holding up the trial telling everyone "no, we'll keep this man locked up until we can get another few nines on that figure, all other logic but math be damned".

Re:1% error (1)

FamineMonk (877465) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873448)

using handheld computers to track and tally the millions of Americans who do not return the census forms mailed out by the government. The Census Bureau plans to hire and train nearly 600,000 temporary workers to help.
And 1% of 600,000 is 6000.

Re:1% error (1)

Sciros (986030) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874144)

One percent of three hundred million
I see you have already conducted the census! Can I split the $650 million with you?

wow... ideal role for the XO (2, Interesting)

advocate_one (662832) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873240)

of course do a more businesslike version with a larger keyboard... but the XO with custom census gathering application saving the data off onto flash drives would have been perfect... pity the timescale is a bit short now...

Re:wow... ideal role for the XO (1)

FamineMonk (877465) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873402)

Hell there are lots of different things you could do. Buy N810s write custom software for them its something you could easily fit in to your bag or pocket. Hell if you had problems you could just have them bring 2 or 3 with them just to be sure they always have one thats working.

This all seems really stupid when you think about the fact that a few people + some hardware could come up with something in a basement. $2 Billion, God Bless America.

Re:wow... ideal role for the XO (1)

adolf (21054) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873662)

Um. Uh.

Hey, kids:

The portable hardware probably isn't the difficult part, here. For fuck's sake: I've got more than enough horsepower in my 4-year-old Palm Zire 71 to organize, contain and transmit the output of one census worker.

Which is cool, I guess. But all of the overpowered portable hardware in the world will not change the fact that the software and back end required to make it useful DOES NOT EXIST.

Re:wow... ideal role for the XO (1)

FamineMonk (877465) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873938)

I was under the impression that they were having hardware failures. If it is in fact a software problem then thats a different matter. But still 2 billion sounds way overpriced for something that still might not work correctly.

We'll still be using XP (-1, Offtopic)

langelgjm (860756) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873242)

Also, according to the image on page 4, [computerworld.com] in 2015, we STILL won't be using Vista.

Re:We'll still be using XP (1)

Spy der Mann (805235) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873340)

Also, according to the image on page 4, in 2015, we STILL won't be using Vista.

And that's good news! :D

Horrible... (2)

Stanislav_J (947290) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873252)

How could we possibly do a census with paper and pencil? I mean, we've never done it that way before, right?

Re:Horrible... (2, Informative)

JonTurner (178845) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873524)

I agree with your sentiment, however the problem with the "modern" census is, for many citizens, it goes far beyond the simple enumeration of all citizens proscribed by the Constitution and has become a multipage survey asking questions about plumbing, commute times, what languages are spoken at home, who raises your children, where you work, etc. It's so extensive, the government estimates it will take a person 38 minutes to complete the survey!
See for yourself: http://www.census.gov/dmd/www/pdf/d02p.pdf [census.gov]

Are you serious? (5, Insightful)

TripMaster Monkey (862126) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873264)

Originally, the contract was awarded at a cost of $596 million to Harris Corporation. However, the GAO has now estimated the revised contract, now costing $647 million, could grow to $2 billion and the equipment may still not work properly.

1.4 billion is one hell of an overrun...and after all that, the equipment may still not work properly?

Is the Harris Corporation currently hiring? I'd like to get me some of that boondoggle.

Re:Are you serious? (3, Interesting)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873766)

The more pressing question on my mind is why they haven't been sued into oblivion. How can you seriously get away with that?

Re:Are you serious? (4, Interesting)

Hatta (162192) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873898)

Corruption.

Re:Are you serious? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22874128)

But also in the article:

But interviews, congressional testimony and government reports describe an agency that was unprepared to manage a $600 million contract for the handheld computers that will be vital. Census officials are being blamed for a poor job spelling out technical requirements to the contractor, Florida-based Harris Corp.

The requirements weren't good, so the product needs to be redesigned and rebuilt in a much tighter time frame. Costs are always going to go way up when that happens.

Go back to the 2000 census methods (1)

davidwr (791652) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873278)

At least this way, you can say the 2010 census used proven techniques.

Another waste of money (2, Interesting)

Harmonious Botch (921977) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873338)

Between driver's licenses, utilities, medicare, social security, public school enrollment, arrests, and other records, a good statistician should be able to get an answer that is close enough. To double check the results, canvass a few dozen randomly chosen counties, then adjust accordingly.

But there is no reason that counting people should cost over half a billion dollars.

We should be able to contract this out. Offer maybe a mere 50 million dollars to the entrant that can produce the best results. Anyone can enter. They do their counting by whatever legal method they choose. THEN the census dept does their random counties, and whoever is closest on those counties gets paid, and their results for the whole country are used.
BTW, I'm assuming here that a census should be just counting heads; that all of the other questions that the census people ask, such as level of education, are none of their business. The constitution requires that people be counted. The goal was to ensure proportional representation. It does not require all of the intrusive questions that they ask now.

Re:Another waste of money (4, Insightful)

drinkypoo (153816) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873388)

BTW, I'm assuming here that a census should be just counting heads; that all of the other questions that the census people ask, such as level of education, are none of their business. The constitution requires that people be counted. The goal was to ensure proportional representation. It does not require all of the intrusive questions that they ask now.

You are not required to answer any other question on the census, either.

You can really just say "nine people live here, go away" and they will.

All that information IS necessary for the government to provide all the services they provide today in a reasonable and efficient manner.

Unfortunately, it would also require that those in charge be interested in reason or efficiency. All they want to do is separate you from money.

So, I agree, but only in that the government should get their nose out of places it doesn't belong in a more general sense. Unfortunately, we could probably argue about what those things are all day.

Re:Another waste of money (1)

Red Jesus (962106) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873692)

You can really just say "nine people live here, go away" and they will.

All that information IS necessary for the government to provide all the services they provide today in a reasonable and efficient manner.

Really? The government can make reasonable and efficient decisions without knowing statistics about its own citizenry? I realize that police can keep people safe without knowing what's in the trunk of my car, but that doesn't mean Congress can make sweeping decisions for a country of 300 million people without knowing large-scale trends that you don't get just by walking the streets of your constituency. Many Americans are concerned that the lowest income quintile keeps getting poorer. If the Federal government is going to do anything to help these people along, it needs to know a little more about them. How well-educated are they? Which regions do they live in? Are they predominantly of a particular ethnicity? Asking Congress to make decisions about America's future without letting them know about America's current state is like asking an engineer to build a bridge without telling him the strengths of the materials he has to work with.

If you think Congress makes dumb decisions, then complain about the dumb decisions. But don't cut off their access to information that could help them make better decisions.

Re:Another waste of money (2, Interesting)

Archangel Michael (180766) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873886)

". Many Americans are concerned that the lowest income quintile keeps getting poorer."

This is because of the fallacy of believing the pie is only so big, and has to be divided equitably. However, the pie is actually variable in size, and all one has to do is increase the size of the pie by working to increase one's proportion of the pie.

There are plenty of unemployed people unwilling to work at any wage under a certain amount, even though they aren't qualified to do any work that provides such a wage as they desire. Meanwhile there are millions of people streaming over the border to work at wages that no American would work, because they make more here working for wages that nobody else will, than they could in their own country.

The people holding signs that say "Will work for food" are liars. They won't work, for anything, they just want a free handout. And many are willing to oblige.

I know, because I was once one of them.

Re:Another waste of money (1)

Moridin42 (219670) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873950)

All that information IS necessary for the government to provide all the services they provide today in a reasonable and efficient manner.


Really? The government can make reasonable and efficient decisions without knowing statistics about its own citizenry? I realize that police can keep people safe without knowing what's in the trunk of my car, but that doesn't mean Congress can make sweeping decisions for a country of 300 million people without knowing large-scale trends that you don't get just by walking the streets of your constituency.


Uh.. saying that the information is necessary for efficient supply of services isn't suggesting that the information is not necessary to the efficient supply of services. I should be amazed at having to point out that "IS" does not equal "IS NOT" in meaning.

Re:Another waste of money (1)

dwarfking (95773) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873984)

You are not required to answer any other question on the census, either.

Unfortunately not true, look at 13 USC 221 [cornell.edu] , which is the current controlling law for the census.

Unfortunately, the way the original Constitutional requirement was written said

"[The Census] shall be made ... in such Manner as [Congress] shall by Law direct."

Which of course the Congress uses to basically do what ever they want, including requiring more information than just a head count.

Re:Another waste of money (1)

Seakip18 (1106315) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873550)

We should be able to contract this out. Offer maybe a mere 50 million dollars to the entrant that can produce the best results
Unfortunately, since it's a gov't contract, I believe the mark up of 300% is required. Even if it's the lowest bid.

unconstitutional (1)

peter303 (12292) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873828)

Its been interpretated that an estimate is not a count. And thats what the constitution asks for.

The Dems prefer a count while the Repubs would go with an estimate. An estimate is more accurate for people who own property.

Re:Another waste of money (1)

Lumpy (12016) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874116)


It doesn't cost that much, Harris is simply trying to pull shenanigans and get some free money for a project they plan on failing already. This is the status quo for government projects.

You should check out the screw ups that dont get press. Hell look at the overruns on the mess that is the "big dig" you cant tell me there is not some shady things going on there.

Why not use home PCs? (2, Interesting)

easyEmu (977903) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873346)

Is there a law that requires census workers to knock on people's doors, can we not allow people to register for a census on the internet? Would that not be easier and less expensive?

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

Chandon Seldon (43083) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873560)

They already send census forms by postal mail. The door-knocking is for households that don't fill out the forms. Maybe they could increase the response rate with a website - it's probably worth trying - but there'd still need to be knocking on doors.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

XxtraLarGe (551297) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873566)

That was my thought exactly. There's nothing about a census that should require going door-to-door. At the very least, they should allow people to opt-out of the door-to-door if they voluntarily fill out a census online.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873588)

Yeah, because the people living in poverty, the Amish, and isolated rural areas don't count anyway.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

easyEmu (977903) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873912)

Every public library has free internet service. We could also put registration systems on all the public transportation systems. Make census registration mandatory when you assess your personal property. If you do not have personal property then you likely ride public transportation. Anyone who is an adult, does not pay personal property tax, and who does not use a form of public transportation at least one time in the whole year is probably staying at a homeless shelter, so we should only have to send door to door people to all the shelters.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

Chyeld (713439) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873680)

*sarcasm on*
Wow, I never knew so many people lived at the public pool....
And no one lives downtown apparently...
*sarcasm off*

How exactly would you be able to trust any sort of information you received via a volunteer internet based collection?

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

easyEmu (977903) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873958)

You mean like paying taxes online? Why not tie the census to social security number like everything else in our lives?

Perhaps ballot stuffing (1)

peipas (809350) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873690)

For example, by loosening up the definition of "citizen" only slightly, I can double the U.S. population. Every life counts.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

Frosty Piss (770223) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873976)

Physically interviewing each person is much more accurate and much less prone to fraud.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (1)

easyEmu (977903) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874008)

Just use the census bureau to audit people like the IRS does. There could be steep penalties for claiming more people live in your household than actually do.

Re:Why not use home PCs? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22874090)

2 or 3 botnets sending in false data just for fun... I can imagine the hilarity that would ensue when a town of 30 gets a Federal windfall diverted from somewhere else.

It's the people stupid (1)

Bryansix (761547) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873354)

The problem with the computers is two-fold. One is they aren't designed to work with large amounts of data. The other is user training. Having been in college for the 2000 census, I can tell you that the government will hire any douchebag to complete the census in time. Therefore the users will be stupid. This system better be designed with a 90 great grandma in mind or it won't get results. That means it HAS to be intuitive. Furthermore the Census will always be off. If people returned the mail in form then the computers wouldn't be needed. Some people will never submit their information while still others who know what the Census is used for (Government subsidies and aid is tied to it) will over report the number of people in their household.

Re:It's the people stupid (1)

Amouth (879122) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873600)

i never understood this.. why not to a 2 fold system

1) web based fill in for address
then
2) no spoken for addresses - mail out form
then
3) have postal workers get the info for the remaining addresses

all being spaced out by a few months..

i mean.. the post office basicly visits every location every day 6 days a week (i know not ALL but damn close percentage wise)

really i just don't undertand why the hell it is all that fucking hard.. sure people can poke holes in what i posted.. but others can fix them.. but 2billion is bull shit

What the hell is a GAO? (1)

peipas (809350) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873362)

Government Accountability Office, apparently.

...and quite the oxymoron it is! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873772)

so, who really is holding them accountable?

Re:...and quite the oxymoron it is! (1)

TTURabble (1164837) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874006)

...And who is accounting for the accounters?!

What's Wrong With Paper? (1)

prichardson (603676) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873366)

I know computers are capable of doing the job, but what was wrong with paper? Paper doesn't crash, get deleted, or require technology training. Further, if someone loses a paper copy of the census, it doesn't cost that much to replace.

It doesn't even have to be nice paper, just as long as it can be written on.

Re:What's Wrong With Paper? (1)

stokessd (89903) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873436)

They could use Hipster PDAs, they are all the rage and don't crash:

http://wiki.43folders.com/index.php/Hipster_PDA [43folders.com]

I'd be willing to provide say a million of them for a mere 20% of that projected overrun.

Sheldon

Re:What's Wrong With Paper? (1)

Chandon Seldon (43083) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873522)

It's awfully useful to have data in computer storage if you want to query it for information.

Consider this question: What is the median income of urban black males ages 30-37?

Now consider answering that on a computer - if the data's in an SQL database, that's like two queries. In contrast, answering that that given a warehouse full of filing cabinets is basically impossible.

What? (1)

AbsoluteXyro (1048620) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873414)

How the hell can it be that hard to count people?

Re:What? (1)

compro01 (777531) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873796)

counting isn't the hard part. the problem is finding all of them and collecting all the other demographic trivia, then collating and interpreting those findings.

Is Diebold making the computers? (4, Funny)

Tired and Emotional (750842) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873438)

Lets hope not. The population of the West Coast and the North East combined would come out at zero!

Re:Is Diebold making the computers? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22874066)

Diebold Census results:
25% male
24% female
51% republican

Too much data (1, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873440)

The problem is as it always is with the federal government. The Constitution only says one thing about the census:

"[An] Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct."

from Article 1 Section 2 [usconstitution.net] , but our government has increased what is actually collected from a simple head count to a great deal more (intrusive) information as defined by 13 USC 141 [cornell.edu] .

If the census only covered what is mentioned in the Constitution, one of those simple hand counters (the click type) would suffice.

During the last census, one of the census workers came to my house with this big long form. I told him that there were 2 voting age adults and 3 underage children residing there. He started asking all sorts of other questions, how much do you make, what race is everyone, etc. When I refused to answer he became all indignant telling me I was required to answer because it was a Constitutional mandate. When I pointed out that I did answer based on the Constitution he became angry.

At that point I told him to have me arrested and I'd see him in court and closed the door.

The fact is, the government needs all that data to continue with their social engineering and that is something I won't support.

So yeah, the system has cost overruns, and could be handled with just a piece of paper and a pencil, if, the government would do only what they were supposed to do.

Can we not train people? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873458)

Big worries for the nation's first high-tech census should have been obvious when tests showed some of the door-to-door headcounters couldn't figure out their fancy new handheld computers.

Are there seriously people out there who are NOT TRAINABLE to this extent? Or to ask it another way, did the census people hire people who are incredibly dense, averse to learning new things, and/or stubborn?

Or maybe I should ask it this way. Did the company who designed the software do such a poor job designing the interface that it's impossible to use?

This is simple... (1)

msauve (701917) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873474)

just take an enumeration, which is all that the Constitution allows, anyway. ("The actual Enumeration shall be made ... within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct...counting the whole number of persons in each State...")

Without the need to gather all that other illegal crap ("How many toilets in your household?"), a census take needs little more than a cheap handheld clicker.

Use the Post Office (2, Insightful)

wile_e_wonka (934864) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873492)

I think they should just use the post office to conduct the census. They already go to everyone's house. They could just hire some more people for the census and expand the job of the mailperson for a few months.

Re:Use the Post Office (1)

Sentry21 (8183) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873632)

Except they don't go to everyone's house at a time when people are likely to be home (necessarily). My mail sure as heck doesn't come when I'm home, and only when I was working graveyard shifts in the past has that ever happened. The problem with censuses is that they're not just going door-to-door, it's going door-to-door and asking questions of people over the age of 18 who live there. That's why they need census-takers.

Re:Use the Post Office (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873978)

I think they should just use the post office to conduct the census.

The census is conducted by mail. The census workers are there (among other reasons) to contact people don't return the mail-in form by the cutoff date...

Fron TFA: They would use the computers to collect and transmit information from residents who failed to return the census forms mailed out by the government.

It's not that complicated.... (1)

ocirs (1180669) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873494)

I don't see why a couple hundred servers at a few million along with a nicely designed site with php and mysql for a few hundred thousand wouldn't work. Internet surveys are extremely popular these days and the information wouldn't have to go through multiple hoops to be stored in the database format where it can be analyzed.

How is it the computers' fault? (1)

pembo13 (770295) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873540)

Are computers just not powerful enough for the task? Are the incapable of performing the required computations? If not, I don't see how this is the poor computers fault. On another note: I am guessing a slate of Tungten Es with custom software is out of the question.

Foreign census experience (5, Interesting)

Bombula (670389) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873558)

I was living in a Gulf country a few years ago when the government there conducted the census. They just sent out an army of 20-somthings with PDAs to do the surveys. I believe most of the survey was multiple-choice, but there were some numeric entries (how much I earned per month and what y rent cost, for example). You could do those with multiple-choice too, obviously, with a selection of ranges.

The whole census survey took about 15 minutes. They collected a lot of data - I'd say there were between 60 and 80 questions. Since I'm a geeky sort of person, I asked the kid how it worked and he showed me - the PDA (a Compac Pocket PC) just ran a macro in MS Office which dumped each survey as a file into a folder. That folder synced via wireless/mobile-phone link to where the main data center was.

The country has a population of about 4 million, and he said there were 200 people doing the survey for several months. Seemed pretty straightforward, and I can't imagine it cost that much - certainly labor and not the PDAs was the primary expense.

Re:Foreign census experience (2, Interesting)

Sentry21 (8183) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873696)

I worked for a company that did mobile data collection software, including actual survey design (flowing questions, ask this question based on this question's answer, filter these responses, ask this set of questions once for each child listed in previous questions, etc.).

This stuff is trivial to implement if you do it right, and all it takes is commodity Palm hardware (or PocketPC hardware running an emulation layer, or Windows tablets). It's trivial to do, syncs automatically, and can export all the data in a format easily used for generating whatever reports or correlations you want. The fact that the government is screwing this up (or rather, their contractor is) is just an example of not shopping around (or perhaps limiting their shopping to only American companies).

There's no reason that it should cost anywhere as much as it does, unless they're hiring way too many people (or can't manage the travelling salesperson problem). It's just a mismanaged government cock-up, is all.

Count Accuracy Unlikely (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873590)

I will be 60 this year and as far as I know may have never been counted, unless I was
counted somewhere around my 2nd birthday. Spent the first 34 years at the same address.
While there we received census forms in the mail twice, with instructions to wait for
a census worker to come pick them up. There was no address for mailing them back to
anywhere and nobody ever came to pick them up. After I left that address I, my wife
and son have never had any contact with anybody or anything regarding the U.S. Census.
I have lived in the same home for the last 13 years in a St. Louis county suburb in
Missouri that is less than 8 miles from our Lambert International Airport.

Re:Count Accuracy Unlikely (2, Interesting)

steveg (55825) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873982)

In 52 years I've been counted once, to my knowledge. It was either the 1980 or 1990 census. Never before or since.

Paint me Blue... (2, Insightful)

whisper_jeff (680366) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873606)

Paint me blue and call me stupid, but really, how hard is it to make a hand-held computer designed to take and store census data? It's not like these machines need to calculate pi. It's data entry and retention. Right? How could that possibly require $2 billion dollars to implement? What am I missing? (beyond the obvious corruption and inflation of budgets to line the pockets of fat cats)

Major IT failures seem so common (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873612)

Bet if you did a study, a serious one, you'd find there's an irrefutable inverse relationship between the amount of money bid for a project and the success of that project. I know it sounds like a flippant witticism, but I'm sure of it, do the research and the figures will prove a direct *causal link* between the amount of money put in and project failure.

I mean, what is it with these large scale IT projects? They take a simple problem and turn it into a money pit. Here in the UK we've had several high profile massive budget IT failures in the last 10 years, air traffic control, national health patient record databases, in fact the more critical it is the more of a spectacular unqualified fuck-up it becomes.

Now, if you got a couple of average hacker nerds and gave then the same specs, but didn't tell them it was for a large scale project, or for whom, they would give you a faultless solution using commodity hardware, stock methods and free software in a few months at one *millionth* the cost we're looking at here. Every one of you here knows it to be true. So, my question is, what goes wrong? How can it possibly go so wrong? Are the people involved complete idiots? Or corrupt?

What are the factors that turn a simple software project into an impossible task? Is it the stress of high budgets? Too many crooks spoiling the broth? And more to the point, when is some bright person going to break from this pattern of failure and realise that to award a major government IT contract to *more than one* complete no-name outsiders bidding a fraction of the cost makes more sense than giving billions of dollars to one contractor and putting all your eggs in one basket?

How can they possibly fuck this one up? (2, Interesting)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873630)

Yeah, yeah, I know, the evil gummint. That said, this was farmed out to Harris Corporation. How could they screw up so dramatically? Every part of this project is pure COTS. Handheld computers are stock items, in the form of phones, PDAs, tablets, eeePCs, or whatever. In any of those categories one can get a device that'll run whatever software you want it to run for not much money at all. The input software on the handhelds should be trivial, and the backend is standard database. Big standard database; but that is nothing new. How can that start at over half a billion dollars and potentially quadruple from there? Even if you bought expensive commercial software the whole way, giant sun boxxen to run it on, and iphones for every last censustaker it shouldn't run anywhere near that. Heck, for that kind of money, you could develop an openMoko branch to be exactly the device you want it to be, probably three times over. WTF? I realise that the government has a reputation for lousy efficiency; but what about this contractor? How does a company this worthless survive?

The Solution Is Obvious (1)

BigBlueOx (1201587) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873648)

The problem is that a bunch of "temporary workers" can't figure out the user interface on those Harris thingys. Well, they should be using Mac Airs ... or Apple AirBooks ...or whatever the hell they're called. Anybody can use an Apple, they're so intuitive! And cheap! Don't forget the cost savings!

And again I have to wonder why I'm not in charge.

Silence of the Lambs (1)

Ethanol-fueled (1125189) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873714)

"A census taker tried to quantify me once. I ate his liver with some fava beans [wikipedia.org] and a big Amarone [wikipedia.org] .

--Dr. Hannibal Lecter

Re:Silence of the Lambs (1)

Freeside1 (1140901) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873880)

not that it matters, but I thought it was a "nice Chianti"

Who can you call? (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22873734)

I'm pretty sure MacGyver did his own 1985 census with a paperclip, a piece of scotch tape, and 3 guys he found standing outside a Home Depot in Tucson.

That, folks (1)

ThorGod (456163) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873742)

is why I do not like having official work be done with computers!

XD

Am I missing something? (1)

Neotrantor (597070) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873792)

Didn't IBM do the census in 1890? Doesn't it stand to reason their still up to the task?

Old tech keeps working... (1)

fahrbot-bot (874524) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873814)

There is consideration that the paper and pencil method might have to be employed to complete the census.

Dear Commerce Department, See: Why OldTech Keeps Kicking [slashdot.org]

Paper and Pencil? How's that work? (1)

Sponge Bath (413667) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873932)

Countee: [waves hand] "These are not the droids you are looking for...hee hee!"

Counter: [pulls out pencil and checks 'dork']

Flagrant Corruption (1)

the0ther (720331) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873934)

two billion dollars? are you effing kidding me? let's go back to the good old days when they would hang a man for stealing a horse.

I agree (0, Flamebait)

Lilith's Heart-shape (1224784) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874042)

You're right, and the people modding you down are full of shit. Two billion dollars for a census is unforgivable, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if some of Bush's cronies had stock in Harris. You're right; we should go back to the days when horse thieves were hanged, the days when the tax regime we have now would provoke widespread insurrection.

I am waiting for the day when (1)

zappepcs (820751) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873960)

projects like this are not just put out for bid, but offered up like an X Prize. For a mere 10 million dollars they would probably end up with a device agnostic system that works with wireless and not, and compiles statistics for serving up to the web automatically. I can see the Google mashup now.

Ferchrisakes, this is WHAT GEEKS DO all day long.

Add a blind double check security login so that people can be counted at home on their computers. Then only check those with addresses and no data as well as addresses with more than one set of data.

Then off you go, into the wild digital yonder of mashups and web pages with pie charts and 'stuff'

Yes, I truly do believe it is that simple. The one guy that has a chance for the netflix prize all on his own is one of those bumps in the bell curve of design. If you put it up for bid, the only developers working on the project will be bound to follow orders from those above, and bright ideas will be lost in the suffle of stale coffee and boring meetings.

Post the bid specs and lets see what happens? why not? I realize this has to secure information about persons but it's not like the system would lose any nuclear weaponry in Taiwan? right?

why not (1)

esocid (946821) | more than 6 years ago | (#22873972)

Just extrapolate or approximate by using a smaller census and count the number of employed and schoolgoing kids and just add the number of unemployed, homeschooled, and births to get a number that would have about a 90% confidence interval? Is a 95% confidence interval really worth that many billion dollars?

re (1)

JohnVanVliet (945577) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874010)

2 billion ??? you could do the census using OLD trs 80 pocket computers so What will cost that much, 2 billion

Let me just get this straight... (0, Troll)

tommyhj (944468) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874034)

In the US, the government has to go around, manually counting people in the streets??? Aren't you people registered centrally with your citizenship at birth or something? I mean, counting people like that is what I heard they did in a very popular Christmas story 2008 years ago, but I honestly though technology and advances in governmental practices had made manual counting obsolete...

Incompetent Buffoons (1)

DigitalisAkujin (846133) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874052)

This is what happens if contracts are awarded to companies that have CEOs with connections to politicians. Politicians clearly have no fucking clue what it's involved so they simply accept the status quo from these leeches!

The fact of the matter is this job could be done with this setup:
-Each hand held machine would collect data as it's received and store locally.
-Once back at the office they would be connected to the LAN with an Internet connection to a main server at census offices with an SSL encryption that would simply upload the results.

Why is it that companies constantly over complicate the operation?

Videogame developers do a better job of all of this on a tighter budget with less people and are expected to do so in less time!! Why are we paying them if the job isn't done? Cut them off now and get someone else for the job.

My Other Computer is a Pencil... (2, Insightful)

mkcmkc (197982) | more than 6 years ago | (#22874134)

One thing that 20+ years in the computer industry has taught me is that if you don't need a computer for a task, don't use one.

Coincidentally, my first paying job was working as a US Census enumerator for the 1980 census. Paper worked fine. The real problems were with my fellow citizens who didn't want to be enumerated (which I can understand, though calling the police on me seemed like overkill).

Finally, apropos of this topic, I recently discovered that the best "organizer" in the world is an empty file folder (or perhaps several) and a supply of sticky notes. Portable, easy to reorganize, no problem if you run your car over it, easy to back up, etc.

Load More Comments
Slashdot Login

Need an Account?

Forgot your password?