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The Bureau of the Census envisioned a high-tech effort for 2010, with hundreds of thousands of census-takers inventorying America’s population with the aid of new hand-held computers. Instead, crucial parts of the census operation are reverting to a more expensive paper-based system. New technology seemed to promise increased accuracy and cost-efficiency, but field tests in 2004 and 2006 showed that the hand-held devices the bureau had bought were slow and unreliable. Later in 2006, the Census Bureau changed direction by offering a contract for almost $600 million to Harris Corporation to develop better devices. At a 2008 census “dress rehearsal” meant to identify kinks in the system, though, Harris’ devices also proved problematic. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says the hand-held computers have experienced memory overloads and other technical glitches. In April 2008, the bureau announced it would nix the devices in the follow-up stage of the census, in which census employees track down the estimated 35 percent of Americans who are unlikely to return the bureau’s written survey. The bureau does intend to use the hand-held computers to verify address and map information in early 2009, during the first nationwide field operation of the 2010 census: address canvassing. Cost estimates for the census, which were at $11.5 billion earlier this year, have swelled to between $13.7 billion and $14.5 billion, and some census-watchers worry about whether the process will start on schedule. Census data determines how congressional districts are drawn and how some $300 billion in federal funds are distributed annually, so greater accuracy promotes more equitable decision-making. The bureau’s failures could lead to a less accurate measure of Americans — who they are and how they live.

Reports on the census from the GAO say that plans for increasing the accuracy of the census “show promise” but that the bureau must keep close tabs on the performance of the hand-held devices. The GAO recently named the census as one of 13 “urgent issues” for President-Elect Barack Obama and the 111th Congress. “Soon after taking office,” said the GAO, “the new administration will need to address the significant management and technology challenges facing this complex and costly effort.” A spokesman for the bureau said it is confident that the census will start on time and that the process is back on track.

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