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Census 2010: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Census 2010: Rock, Paper, Scissors

Hey, taxpayers? You know that $3 billion we asked you for to develop cool new handheld computers for the next U.S. Census? Well, it's like this: The darned things don't work. We figured out a system that we're pretty sure will do the job, though. When our three-quarters of a million census takers start knocking on doors in 2010, we're going to make sure they have a plentiful supply of paper and pencils.

By Erika Morphy
04/07/08 6:00 AM PT

When the Census Bureau sends out its legions of employees to count American heads two years hence, the roughly 140,000 address canvassers and 580,000 enumerators won't be armed with custom-built handheld computers. Instead, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told a House panel on Friday, the government agency will use a paper-based system.

The U.S. Commerce Department has dropped a 2006 contract with Harris to design and manufacture devices specifically for the census, at a cost of US$3 billion to taxpayers.

Gutierrez explained that when a dress rehearsal for the census was conducted in 2007, development and scoping problems emerged. In late 2007 and early 2008, the Census Bureau determined there were at least 400 tech requirements that still had to be met. Some were related to newly identified needs; others had already been established, but they required clarification.

At that point, Census Director Steve Murdock set up a task force to figure out how to keep the program on track. Its conclusion? Use paper.

"Based on ... serious consideration of the benefits and pitfalls of each option, today I am reporting to this committee that we will move forward with the recommendation to use a paper-based [system] in the 2010 decennial census," said Gutierrez.

Perfect fodder for late-night comedy.

Plenty of Failure to Spread Around

While a government IT fiasco is likely to draw more barbs, there have been some spectacular failures in the private sector as well.

A few weeks ago, for instance, Waste Management filed a lawsuit against SAP for the "complete failure" of a $100 million implementation, Faisal Hoque, CEO of BTM Corporation, told the E-Commerce Times.

Still, there is something particularly galling about such mismanagement in the government, given all the resources at its disposal. "This is not a new story -- it is just today's story, Hoque said.

A few years ago, he noted, the FBI had to confess that a multimillion dollar computer system it had developed to manage its case files was not going to be fully implemented.

Topping the favorite-failure list of Brian Olson, vice-president of public affairs at Video Professor, is the Mars Climate Orbiter mission. Collaborating on a key spacecraft operation, one team used metric units, and another worked in inches and feet.

"The result was a new crater on Mars," Olson told the E-Commerce Times.

Lost in Translation

Every situation is different -- and there is no doubt that the programs cited in the above examples were incredibly complex and technically difficult. Still, taken together, these failures have a depressingly familiar theme, Hoque said.

"The fundamental problem is that there is a lack of a management framework to guide decision-making," he observed. "Investment and strategic planning and the overarching architecture and policy for the Census cannot be independent from one another -- but that is what I think happened here."

At some point, communication about the needs for the handheld census device went awry, commented Wes Trochlil, president of Effective Database Management.

"In my experience, the primary reason for large IT failures is a lack of clear business objectives -- or a lack of agreement on those objectives," he told the E-Commerce Times.

"For example, the explicit objective for the census project was to have more accurate data. It was believed that technology Visit the VMware Tech Center could make that happen. Without knowing the details, I'd bet that when it came right down to it, the primary objective was lost in the details of implementing the technologies," he conjectured. "In other words, while everyone agreed that more accurate data was the goal, they couldn't agree [on] how to make that happen."

To Mars

What probably frustrates people the most about federal IT projects gone bad is the lack of accountability.

"I'm sure the head of the [Mars mission] team told everyone, 'Hey, at least we got there!'" Olson said.

"Government agencies, sadly, when tasked with designing a horse will come up with an animal which meets the desired specs of having a head, a tail and four legs," he said, "but it looks more like an elephant. Eighty percent of our population now has access to computers and, one would expect, a level of computer expertise. Yet someone will come to their door and gather information with pen [and] pencil and a piece of paper. Like they did a hundred years ago. And the people answering the door, will be out the $3 billion."


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