Census Director: IT Problems Caused 'Scary Moments' But System Eventually 'Humming Along'

By Nicholas Ballasy | August 11, 2010 | 2:12 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - The director of the Census Bureau, Dr. Robert Groves, said  that Information Technology (IT) problems caused some “scary moments” during the counting process in the 2010 Census but eventually the system was “humming along.”

Groves added that the Bureau does not  have “any evidence” of “quality impacts” on the count as it focuses on “quality control measures” after completing the non-response follow-up operation, the procedure whereby Census workers go door to door interviewing households that did not mail back their Census forms. ?
“We don’t have any evidence that there were quality impacts on this," Groves told CNSNews.com at the National Press Club., where he spoke about the progress of the 2010 count.  "I can tell you there were scary moments among the management team. We – this is a great team."

“We meet every day at 4:30 and it is a room where decisions are made based on data, but there were moments when the software was fragile that those meetings were attention-filled," he said.
The Inspector General’s Office at the Commerce Department highlighted the Census’ IT issues in its May 5, 2010 report, “2010 Census: Quarterly Report to Congress." It specifically cited problems involving the paper-based operations control system (PBOCS). This system is used to manage the Census’ non-response follow-up (NRFU) operation. ? 

“Unless PBOCS stability improves substantially, the cost of the NRFU operation, its timely completion, and the accuracy of its count are at risk,” said the report.
Groves elaborated on the “scary moments” caused by the IT problems in an interview with CNSNews.com after the press conference.
“The high-risk label on these software systems are not just my label but others as well," he told CNSNews.com.  "These were systems that were developed really just in time. Code was being written and tested in real time. At the beginning of the non-response follow-up stage, what was happening was that when a Census worker finished their questionnaire and put it into the office, there was a step where there’s a barcode on the questionnaire and that was read by a reader and it was checked in."
“Well, that part of the function, it was working but it was very slow, it was very inefficiently executing the code," he said.  "So, questionnaires were piling up in the offices, not checked in. The system couldn’t support enough users to get the through-put through. So, that was a scary time. And we, there were a set of great people who just jumped on that problem. We looked at the problem everyday at 4:30. They were making changes between midnight and 6 every day and we brought in people from the outside."

"We had the developers go out and sit next to users in the Census offices," said Groves. "We did all these kind of feedback loops that we all know work well and we started finding the glitches and fixing the glitches one by one, and eventually that system was just humming along and was great but those early days were scary.”
Groves also told CNSNews.com that the “data collection phase” was the most expensive aspect of the Census.
“The most expensive part of the Census and, looking forward, the things that we need to focus on are whenever we have large operations involving a lot of different people" he said. "So it’s salary costs that really drive the cost of the Census during the data collection phase."
“If we want to save money going forward, we need to figure out ways to enumerate people without requiring a human interviewer to go and knock on their door," he said,  "that’s very expensive, so that’s what we’re focusing on going forward.”
Groves added that the cost of this phase was less than anticipated.
“No, it was less because the American public came through and returned these mail questionnaires at a higher rate than we thought. So the work load for that follow-up procedure was smaller than we thought,” he said.
“That saved a lot of money and then these workers we hired were just fantastic," said Groves. "They were more productive than all our models said they should be so they finished the smaller workload even faster than we thought, and that produced that $600-million savings from the non-response follow-up. So, great workers, smaller workload.”
CNSNews.com also asked Groves, “Do you expect them [the Inspector General’s Office] to say positive things about the IT issues that they’ve been reporting on from the beginning?”
He said, “Well, I hope not. I mean, the job of the Inspector General and the job of the GAO [Government Accountability Office] is to be critical, that’s their job. They need to be critical of us because you need to see that side as well as hearing our side. So, if they become completely friendly, I don’t know what to do with myself. I hope they remain critical.”
Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, whose department oversees the Census Bureau, said the 2010 Census is on schedule.
“The non-response follow-up stage where we called on 47 million households, we knocked on their doors and sought data from them – we finished that," he said. "It was on time and $600 million under budget."
He later added, “The operations are winding down. We’re now focused on quality control measures. That’s where there will be some triple checking. Some households, they’ll be resurveyed just to double check.