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