Beset by delays and ­disasters, the U.S. Census Bureau faced unexpected challenges to its first digital-only count. New tech helped the agency complete its tally (and meet new deadlines) in a chaotic time.

May 11 2021

Census Goes All Digital with Door-to-Door Field Operations

Workers use iPhones as part of a Device as a Service solution that saved the beleaguered count.

When the government’s largest peacetime operation — one with a constitutionally mandated deadline — meets a deadly pandemic and a host of natural disasters, something’s got to give.

Or does it?

The 2020 census was the most state-of-the-art population count in history. Although people could respond by mail or phone, the Census Bureau for the first time also allowed residents to fill out their census forms online as part of the all-digital count.

And when it came time for 600,000 census workers to visit homes to tally those who had not responded to the count, the Census Bureau armed the enumerators with iPhone 8 devices, allowing them to collect data electronically instead of manually filling out paper questionnaires on a clipboard.

As April 1 of last year approached — the day on which all census information is based — the bureau was ready to go.

Then history got in the way. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the door-to-door field operations for two months, dozens of massive wildfires across the western states kept workers away from endangered communities, social unrest caused unease in some neighborhoods and a record-breaking hurricane season hampered the count in the Gulf region.

Yet the efficiencies gained from all the technology allowed the census to reach its goal of counting 99.9 percent of households by its new Oct. 15 deadline, just two and a half months after the original one.

“There is no way we could have finished the census without the technology,” says Michael Thieme, the Census Bureau’s assistant director for decennial census programs, systems and contracts. “Automation saved us, everything from the digital response online to having people get their workloads digitally on their handheld devices.”

The Census Bureau Faced a Host of Pandemic Problems 

The census, mandated by the Constitution to occur every 10 years, impacts every U.S. resident. Its results are used to redraw federal and state legislative districts, determine the number of seats each state has in the House of Representatives and help decide how much federal money is allocated to communities for critical services such as Medicaid or free school lunches.

For this count, the bureau relied on the largest federal deployment ever of a Device as a Service solution, hiring technology provider CDW•G to purchase, configure and deliver more than 600,000 smartphones, tablets and laptops to 248 census field offices across the country.

“It required months and months of preparation, planning and preconfiguration of the devices, so they could all go out at once and be used at the same time,” says Randy Harris, CDW•G’s vice president of federal program management, capture and services.

The Census Bureau began its headcount on March 12, 2020, with the launch of its online portal for self-responses. Just one week later, most of the country began to shut down and shelter in place because of the coronavirus outbreak, which threatened the bureau’s critical door-to-door operations.

The pandemic also hampered CDW•G’s plans to prepare iPhones for the census enumerators, and iPad devices and Dell laptops for field supervisors. However, the company re-engineered its device provisioning process to stay on schedule while ensuring the safety of its employees.

“That took some very creative thinking and work to make their provision facilities capable of still producing what we needed, but with a socially distanced setup,” Thieme says.

The CDW Configuration Services team had developed a 24/7 operation and deployed a dedicated staff at its centers in Vernon Hills, Ill., and Las Vegas to load the Census Bureau’s software image onto the mobile devices, activate cellular service on the iPhones and iPads and test them to make sure they worked properly.

When the pandemic struck, the configuration services team equipped its employees with personal protective equipment, moved workbenches 6 feet apart and installed plastic partitions to protect employees. The team also deep cleaned its warehouses after every shift, so it had to eliminate some shifts and was no longer a 24/7 operation, says Jocelyn Guiwan, a CDW configuration services senior manager.

To compensate and keep pace with output, the company expanded the warehouse space for the project and built custom workbenches with two additional shelves, allowing staffers to double the number of devices they could configure at a time, from 40 to 80, she says.

Initially, the field operations to count nonresponders was scheduled to happen from mid-May through July 31. But the pandemic forced Census Bureau administrators to push back the start date by two months, to mid-July.

During this time, the bureau — which had originally ordered 480,000 iPhones — decided it needed more enumerators to meet its shifting deadlines, so it added another 125,000 iPhones to its order. The CDW•G staff scrambled to provision the additional devices, and in the end, delivered 645,000 iPhones, iPads and Dell notebooks on time.

“It was a huge undertaking,” says Scott Erickson, a CDW configuration services senior manager. “Once the pandemic hit, we had to change the way we conducted business. We maximized what we did and how we did it to hit the deadlines.”

CDW•G shipped each iPhone with a protective phone case, power adapter and car charger. The iPads were equipped with keyboards that were paired via Bluetooth. The kit also contained protective face masks and hand sanitizer.

“We made it ready to use out of the box. We wanted the enumerators and supervisors to have the easiest and best experience,” Erickson says.

DIVE DEEPER: How can Device as a Service aid your agency? 

Getting the Census Underway in the Field 

In mid-July, the Census Bureau began a soft launch of its field offices, allowing agency leaders to open offices and begin door-to-door enumerating when they felt it was safe to do so. To assist with decision-making, the bureau created a fusion center to monitor and analyze data feeds, such as COVID-19 infection rates in every community.

“It was a soft launch that brought us back into the field using tons of analytics, CDC information and on-the-ground knowledge to decide which offices to open safely,” Thieme recalls. “It was, ‘Where can we work? Are the conditions to restart operations acceptable to send people out door to door?’”

Every morning, bureau administrators met with fusion center staff over a Skype videoconference to analyze conditions — including the safety of communities where disaster had struck or protests were underway — and determine whether each field office would open.

Michael Thieme, Assistant Director for Decennial Census Programs, Systems and Contracts, U.S. Census Bureau
There is no way we could have finished the census without the technology.”

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

“It was one thing after another in 2020 — even the wildfires,” Thieme says. “We had to stop data collection in areas where air quality was so bad that we couldn’t send people outside.”

In the end, 67 percent of U.S. residents responded to the census online, on the phone or through mail. That meant the enumerators were tasked with visiting 64 million households to capture the remaining 33 percent of households.

The iPhones worked exactly as the Census Bureau had planned. Every morning, the part-time, temporary workers accessed a set of integrated Census Bureau apps. They’d update the hours they could work over the next five days and then download their day’s assignments. Mapping software provided them the most efficient route to each household.

“The software would automatically give them the assignments for the day that were tailored not only for their schedule, but the likelihood — based on sophisticated modeling of the addresses — that they would be home,” Thieme says.

When visiting each home, enumerators called up the census questionnaire via an app on their phones and filled it out during the interview. The data was encrypted, and once forms were complete, the data was automatically transferred to the cloud and deleted from the devices.

Enumerators also used the iPhones to call or text their supervisors, call the bureau for technical support and fill out their time sheets and expenses at the end of their day.

In 2010, field supervisors had to meet in person with enumerators every day to pick up completed paper census forms and to give them their next day’s assignments. The workers also filled out their time sheets and expenses on paper. In contrast, the iPhones digitized the entire process and enabled census workers to maintain social distance.

“If we had done the census like we had in 2010, COVID would have stopped us cold,” Thieme says.

RELATED: How can configuration management specialists help your agency roll out devices? 

Census Bureau Relies on DaaS to Make the Count Possible 

This spring, the Census Bureau was busy completing the processing of all the census data — apportionment data determining the number of House seats for each state was still in progress in mid-April, and was released in late April. But as Thieme reflected on the past year, he said the data collection process was a huge success.

The internet self-response portal had zero downtime, and data collection with iPhones worked perfectly, he says.

“It really worked as a plan. The systems did everything we wanted them to do. This was one of the unsung successes of 2020,” he says.

42 million

The number of pieces of personal protective equipment given to census workers

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

He credits CDW•G’s effort, from provisioning and delivery of the devices to their disposal. When the count was completed, field supervisors collected the mobile devices and shipped them back to CDW•G, which erased and sanitized each device before sending them to the secondary market.

“CDW•G has been very flexible and very mission focused, so we could do everything we needed to do,” Thieme says.

CDW•G executives say they worked closely with the Census Bureau throughout the process, from talking several times a day during provisioning to bureau staff going onsite to check the device decommissioning process.

“It was a close-knit partnership with them,” Erickson says.

Overall, DaaS was pivotal in helping the bureau complete the census count, Thieme says.

“That was one of the reasons we were able to get through the census with all the things that were thrown at it,” he says. “Device as a Service was really critical for the nonresponse follow-up, which is the biggest operation of the census. It’s the technology centerpiece of our ability to get the census done in the field.”

Photos: U.S. Census Bureau; Getty Images; Office of Personnel Management; Wikimedia Commons; CDW•G; Illustrations and icons: Getty Images