The Census Bureau’s Device as a Service project will help enumerators capture as much data as possible, says the bureau’s Michael Thieme.

Nov 18 2019
Digital Workspace

The Census Bureau Makes Device as a Service Count

For the 2020 Census, half a million workers will use mobile technology to tally the number of U.S. residents.

In 2020, the U.S. Census Bureau will launch the most state-of-the-art population count in history, taking advantage of mobile devices, technology and solutions that were barely available a decade ago.

And the nearly half a million workers who will be counting heads to make sure the census is complete will be part of the largest federal deployment to date of Device as a Service.

“To me, this is one of the most exciting mobile device projects ever,” says Jon Johnson, who formerly led the General Services Administration’s Mobile Services Category Team, which developed a governmentwide strategy for managing mobile technology.

The decennial tally of all U.S. residents — currently numbering nearly 330 million — is the largest peacetime government project. It’s been going on every 10 years since 1790 and is mandated in the Constitution.

The final results have a direct impact on every resident. The count determines the borders of federal and state legislative districts; assigns the number of congressional representatives for each state; and provides guidelines for the distribution of about $675 billion in federal funds every year.

Census Bureau Embraces Mobile Devices for the Count 

Traditionally, households received census forms by mail, and that will still happen starting in March. But for the first time, all residents will also be able to fill out the eight-page questionnaire online. (The Census Bureau ran a small experiment testing internet response in 2000, and about 70,000 people tried it.)

Once that phase of the census is complete, between 400,000 and 500,000 census takers (temporary government employees equipped with smartphones) will fan out beginning in May. They’ll go door to door to find those who have not responded, and will add them to the count.

This is the first time the census workers, formally known as enumerators, will collect data for the decennial count electronically rather than with pen and paper. Testing has already shown that the devices speed up the process.

“It’s huge. The automation from the mobile devices will provide a lot of efficiency, but we will also see a 50 percent increase in productivity,” says Michael Thieme, the Census Bureau’s assistant director for decennial census programs, systems and contracts.

The journey to mobile device use took several years. In the past five years, the Census Bureau has tested various options, from purchasing and managing the devices itself (Thieme called this process “painful”) to a BYOD strategy that was difficult to secure.

Michael Thieme, Assistant Director for Decennial Census Programs, Systems and Contracts, U.S. Census Bureau
We want to make sure that things stay as secure as ­possible. We feel like the 2020 Census is a target in this environment.”

Michael Thieme Assistant Director for Decennial Census Programs, Systems and Contracts, U.S. Census Bureau

In the end, Census officials decided to use a Device as a Service (DaaS) solution, turning to a third party to handle the work it found too complicated to manage. For a fixed price, technology provider CDW•G obtains, configures and delivers smartphones, tablets and laptops to the 248 Census field offices and, in some cases, directly to census workers who live in remote locations.

The price was based on the number of units because Census wasn’t sure how many workers would be needed to do the job, says Randy Harris, CDW•G vice president of federal programs, services and delivery. If the standard for the device changes — for example, the manufacturer releases a new, more advanced model — the price will not.

Census officials find the entire ­process a relief so far. “Having a ­provider to acquire, provision, ship and dispose of the devices is a huge service because the government doesn’t have the resources to do it,” says Mark Markovic, the Census Bureau’s ­decennial DaaS program manager.

CDW•G also provided about 56,000 Windows-based laptops in mid-2019 for the address canvassing segment of the project — when Census workers make sure they’ve got every address in the U.S. on their list before the count begins. Once the count is underway, the enumerators’ field supervisors will use about 21,000 tablets to do their jobs.

“We’ve all worked on jobs that are smaller than this, and some that are bigger,” Harris says. “What makes it unique is the timescale it has to be done in. The job requires an extensive amount of activity and services, and it’s all done in a very short period of time.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: See how the Census Burea is ramping up cybersecurity.

How the Census Bureau Benefits from DaaS

The key benefits of DaaS are comparable to those of migration to the cloud. It’s scalable, saves money, turns capital expenditures into operational expenses, and frees up IT staffers’ time so they can focus on innovation and executing the agency’s core mission instead of managing devices.

“The Census Bureau can have it all managed as a serv­ice and not worry about the nitty-gritty details like inventory, maintenance and replacing lost devices,” says Tom Suder, president of the Advanced Technology Academic Research Center, a nonprofit where federal agencies, vendors and academia collaborate to solve emerging technology challenges. “They can concentrate on their primary business — to collect data.”

The Census Bureau’s use of DaaS for the 2020 Census is the largest ever for a federal agency, says Johnson, now serving as senior consultant and federal ­government mobile technology expert with the NASA Solutions for ­Enterprise-Wide Procurement.

“The biggest difference between the 2020 and the 2010 Census is that the technology has matured and caught up with the desire to be able to execute something like this,” he says.

The bureau collaborates closely with its contractors to manage every facet of the mobile deployment. Each has specific tasks to ensure the devices are configured, tested and secured before the agency launches its three-month effort to visit homes that have not responded.


Percentage of respondents expected to be visited by enumerators

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

“It’s a big team. We all just feel like we are Census workers together,” Thieme says.

“It doesn’t take too long working on the project to see that these people have real pride in what they do,” Harris says. “We’ve had a lot of people transfer to the program internally within CDW because of that — they want to be part of it.”

VIDEO: See what the Census Bureau is doing to combat misinformation about the 2020 count. 

How the Census Bureau Is Prepping for the Count 

CDW•G, which delivered the laptops during the summer of 2019, has preordered the smartphones and tablets, which are expected to arrive in early 2020 at about the same time the enumerators are hired. “It sounds like a lot of phones, but we found out the manufacturer builds about 400,000 to 500,000 phones in a week or so, so it’s certainly not a big drain on the provider,” Thieme says.

When the devices arrive, CDW•G will load the Census Bureau’s software image onto the smartphones and tablets and test them to make sure they are working properly. 

CDW•G will also provide asset management services and work directly with wireless carriers to activate mobile voice and data plans.

Meanwhile, the bureau will run its own integration tests to make sure the few applications on the device work with its back-end systems; another contractor ran penetration tests to ensure devices and applications are secure.

Census will also use mobile device management software to remotely handle any necessary software updates, Thieme says, and if any devices are lost or stolen, the bureau will remotely erase them.

“We want to make sure that things stay as secure as possible,” he adds. “We feel like the 2020 Census is a target in this environment. We want to get through it with as few bad actors interfering as possible.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how agencies use mobile technology to aid far-flung employees. 

How Census Enumerators Will Use Mobile Devices

Once hired, enumerators will get three days of in-person and online training before they go out into the field. When they begin work, they will download the day’s assignments onto their smartphones every morning through a cellular connection or Wi-Fi.

They’ll log in using multifactor authentication, and if they need assistance, the Census Bureau will manage help desk requests plus selected security and software upgrades. Nothing will happen automatically, Thieme says.

The bureau built its own integrated apps in-house that allow workers to view their day’s assignments and access the mapping software that will provide them the best and most efficient route to each household they need to visit.

“Based on where you live, it will show you the first address you should visit and give a suggested route to the next address, and so on,” Thieme says. “It’s not turn-by-turn routing; it’s more, ‘Here are your assignments, and this is the order we want you to do them in.’”

Jon Johnson , Former Lead, General Services Administration’s Mobile Services Category Team
The biggest difference between the 2020 and the 2010 Census is that the technology has matured and caught up with the desire to be able to execute something like this.”

Jon Johnson Former Lead, General Services Administration’s Mobile Services Category Team

Enumerators can also use the smartphones to call and text their supervisors, view a limited and whitelisted set of approved websites for work purposes, and fill out their time sheets and expense forms.

As the enumerator interviews a resident, he or she will type information into a special app on the device (even as recently as 2010, these answers were written onto a paper form). 

The data is encrypted, and after each answer is recorded, it is securely transferred to the cloud and the Census Bureau’s data center — where the bureau works to keep it secure — and then deleted off the device.

“We keep the data on the device as short a time as possible for security reasons,” Thieme says.

When Census wraps up enumeration near the end of July, field supervisors will pack up the devices and return them to CDW•G, which will confirm that 100 percent of the devices have all Census applications and data removed (following National Institute of Standards and Technology sanitization requirements) and then dispose of them.

MORE FROM FEDTECH: See how the Air Force secures and customizes its mobile solutions. 

Census Bureau Saves Space and Money by Going Mobile

The automation from the technology and the elimination of paper processes will boost efficiency and save the Census Bureau money, Thieme says.

During the 2010 Census, every field supervisor met with their enumerators at the end of every day to pick up the completed paper census forms and to give enumerators the next day’s assignments. They also filled out their time sheets and expenses on paper.

The bureau needed 500 offices then because it needed space to house all the paper forms and people. It also had to hire clerks to type up the time sheets and expense forms. 

In 2020, going digital with smartphones and mobile applications has allowed the bureau to cut the number of offices by more than half.

“You walk into an office, and compared with the 2010 Census, it’s a completely different environment: a lot fewer people, hardly any paper and a lot quieter,” Thieme says.

DaaS is the kind of solution that can work for startups that don’t have enough capital to spend on IT, or for small businesses that don’t have the personnel to do it, CDW•G’s Harris says. 

On a federal level, Thieme recommends it to agencies that need to deploy devices and do not want the extra work of managing them.

“It’s a clear money saver, and we are seeing the efficiency from not having to acquire, keep track of and dispose of the devices,” he says. “There are companies that do this and have expertise in fielding a set of hardware. I highly recommend it.”

Photography by Jonathan Timmes

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