2020 U.S. Census takers get big upgrade with Apple iPhones

For the 2020 U.S. Census, federal enumerators have gotten a big upgrade: Apple iPhones.

2020 U.S. Census takers get big upgrade with Apple iPhones
Apple’s iPhone 8

Lynn La for CNET:

Michael Thieme, the man who oversees the US Census Bureau’s software and IT teams, knows the bureau has a target on its back. This year’s national decennial census, the first of which began after the Revolutionary War, is plunging full-force into the 21st century thanks to a multimillion-dollar upgrade project. In the next few months, thousands of bureau employees, known specifically as enumerators, will fan out across the country to conduct one of the federal government’s largest peacetime efforts. And for the first time ever, instead of using a clipboard and paper, they’ll be counting people with an iPhone app…

With its $5 billion total IT investment to usher the census into the digital age, the bureau actually hopes that most residents will not meet an iPhone 8-wielding canvasser. Instead, it wants the majority of people to respond via an online portal, which has been available since mid-March. The portal was primarily built and is maintained by Pegasystems, a Massachusetts-based software company, who also designed the app enumerators will use.

But, hasn’t electronic census data collection been tried before?

The effort to give canvassers a handheld computing device has a long and tumultuous history that reaches back to the 2010 census. In 2006, the bureau awarded defense contractor Harris Corporation a $600 million contract to provide 600,000 PDAs. Custom-built by HTC and known as the HTC Census, the blue and gray plastic device had a small display that sat above a set of physical keys. It had GPS and was successfully used to track housing coordinates and log addresses of existing and new buildings.

The bureau also planned for the PDAs to be used for nonresponse followups, but the venture fell apart in the end… In 2008, the bureau decided to abandon the project and revert back to paper forms. By then Harris Corporations’ contract ballooned to a total of $1.3 billion, though the overall cost of the 2010 census came in under budget. The fiasco was “one of the most expensive failed software systems in history,” according to a report by the University of Minnesota’s Minnesota Population Center.

MacDailyNews Take: Ay yi yi.

When the bureau began to consider pitches from potential contractors in 2015, many devices for data collecting out in the field were suggested, including Android phones and tablets. After weighing the competition, the bureau went with CDW-G in June 2017, a tech company headquartered in Illinois, who pitched the leasing of iPhones.

The iPhone attracted the bureau in two key ways. First was familiarity. Apple is one of the most popular phone-makers in the world, and many of the canvassers, who undergo seven to eight weeks of training and are paid an average of $20 an hour, would already be familiar with its iOS software.

The iPhone is stable and its operating system has foundational protections that, while not unique to iOS, are still attractive to enterprises. One is code signing, a feature that prevents apps from being recognized if they alter their code after installation. Another is sandboxing, which restricts apps so they can’t “reach” outside and access other apps.

Because these features are available on all iPhones, the models used by the bureau don’t need to be custom modified. So if an enumerator’s iPhone breaks, for example, they could theoretically walk into an Apple retail store, buy an iPhone and be up and running again after enrolling the new iPhone into the census’ automated mobile device management system. (Though in real life, this would not be protocol.)

To the benefit of CDW-G specifically, iPhones have high residual value compared to its competitors too. After the door-to-door phase is scheduled to wrap up on Aug. 14, the bureau ships back the iPhones to CDW-G, which wipes them and removes them from the census’ system. They are then repurposed or resold by CDW-G for other enterprise purposes.

MacDailyNews Take: By some miracle, the U.S. government finally made the right choice!

There’s tons more about the specialized app and more in the full article.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews Reader “TJ” for the heads up.]


  1. The “miracle” was that, in 2017, the U.S. was headed by a pragmatic businessman, for a change.

    The inexperienced, empty suit community organizer couldn’t figure out how to make junky HTC tech work, so he had to use inefficient, TREE-KILLING paper. Take that, tree-huggers (even though trees are a crop).

    You can thank President Trump for a modern iPhone-based U.S. Census!

    1. Jesus was an inexperienced barefoot community organizer. Everyone uses the tools available in his time. Some make meaningful lasting contributions to society, others adopt their place in the footnotes of history next to President Harding.

      Donald, who had zero experience except as inheritor of Frank’s real estate racket, didn’t choose the tech. Unloved bureaucratic employees from Deep State did that.

      You’re reaching SteveJack.

    2. Oh, and the canvassing for the 2010 Census actually took place in March 2009. Obama had only been president for about six weeks so any failings of the program should be traced back to GWB.

      1. “CDW•G also provided about 56,000 Windows-based laptops in mid-2019 for the address canvassing segment of the project …”

        What a genius businessman!

        Don’t forget to wipe off the orange Spray-on Tan from your eager lips, you loyal political hacks.

  2. Wow, that’s HUGE! I was a Team Lead during the 2010 Census and the crap handheld devices they gave me and my enumerators were horribly clunky. Imagine a late ’90s Palm Pilot with a hardware keyboard that had never been updated in ten years.

  3. When the administration decided to halt air travel from China, the left immediately decided this was the wrong move (shocker). A CNN article critiqued the decision as naive: “Experts say travel restrictions the Trump administration put in place to stop the novel coronavirus from spreading could have unintended consequences that undermine that effort … Details about the U.S. travel ban’s impact are still emerging. But some are already urging the U.S. to reconsider.”
    That was earlier in the outbreak. Now he didn’t do enough. This is just the next wave of the rights attempt to destroy the president.

    1. Hyperbole much? Firsty claims the president produced a miracle. Others revealed the whole story, which is basically business as usual. New contracts, another govt contractor gets the bid, current equipment is used, not all Apple stuff, results yet to be determined. Hardly a time to pop champagne corks and party at Maralago. The President was not remotely involved in any of those tactical decisions. Big effing deal.

      Now with the real story revealed you can’t lionize your orange hero so you flip the subject to an attack on your political opponents. You claim that criticism of an air travel restriction was capable of destroying the president. Is the president that weak? Apparently so.

      The problem with the initial rudimentary ban on Chinese nationals coming in from direct flights from, by the way, is NOT a political nitpick. It was already known that the virus had spread outside China, so for the flight ban was ineffective. To be effective, it would have had to have been implemented earlier and region wide. Eventually it was, when experts in the administration finally weighed in. Also, experts proposed that instead of banning flights, that testing all passengers would be far preferable, and then a plane load of people could be quarantined if anybody tested positive. But as we all know the USA had no test kits at that time. The president claimed otherwise but the facts are undeniable. Americans were dying before the president took anything seriously. Too bad the bureaucracy around the world is still struggling to produce tests and equipment where needed.

      This stuff isn’t political, it’s fair criticism of a bungled response. YOU are the one trying to make your idiot president look good. A simple review of his public statements shows how out of touch he was throughout this crisis. He claimed that the virus would magically disappear with the summer, he thought by April. Obviously he wasn’t listening to any pandemic experts while spouting that BS for all to see. Facts are facts, and this administration doesn’t use them.

    2. Nice revisionist history (fake far right news)! The fact is that the Trump Administration waited too long to act with respect to controlling international travel – not only China, but also Europe and other regions. Furthermore, when Trump finally took action with respect to Europe, he initially excluded some countries without any reasonable justification (other than his property ownership in those countries).

      If you are willing to let Trump to say and do things on the record one day and then deny doing so the next day, then we cannot trust you anymore than we can trust Trump.

      Holding Trump accountable for Failing to deal with REAL issues is fair and reasonable. The fact that it makes Trump look like an idiot is no reason to just let the madness continue without accountability.

      I am tired of the GOP victim mentality. The failures of the Trump Administration and the GOP led Senate are the fault of Trump and Moscow Mitch, not the Democrats, not Obama, and not the Clintons. Show some guts, GOP – own up to your flaws and mistakes and take responsibility for your failings.

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