Census troubleshoots broken software

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

Census Director Robert Groves says that a computer program used to tabulate paper questionnaires from the decennial count experienced some early problems but has been fixed.

Groves outlined his story during his monthly census operations press conference held yesterday at the National Press Club. He spent a good deal of time at the briefing describing recent problems with one of the “back office” systems of the 2010 Census called “the Paper-based Operation Control System”, a large-scale database that functions much like a Swiss army knife, and is used during the current “non-response follow up” phase of the census.

It permits the assignment of cases to interviewers and crew leaders. It permits the check-in of completed cases. It had functions in it that permitted the shipping of completed enumerator questionnaires off to our three processing centers.

Director Groves explained the problem with the software for handling the paper response forms, saying, “In the early days of the non-response follow-up, this system was not operating at the level we needed to finish this operation. We called in consultants from the outside, in the operating system, and the database design, and we have made improvements in this system, and that allows me to report that that check-in process that is crucial to the non-response follow up is going much better.”

Groves told Federal News Radio that some of those outside consultants came from places like Oracle, which built the database, and Red Hat, which supports the Linux operating system running the hardware. The consultants were joined by Census Bureau staff, under the direction of Groves, the Census chief information officer and the chief technology officer at the Department of Commerce, the parent agency for the Census Bureau.

In explaining the problem, Groves said the multiple functions of the database were making conflicting demands on the pool of information in the system, resulting in scanning delays for the forms. Groves says they used nightly system maintenance sessions to resolve the data conflicts.

In addition, Groves says limiting the number of staffers accessing the database system also improved performance. Within the last week, he says, “we’ve had two million records we’ve checked in every day.” With that sort of progress, says Groves, they have made progress toward eliminating the backlog of census questionnaires.

Dr. Groves also said that in some cases, the database glitches were also a “teachable moment” for the software development team. In order to better understand how the Paper-based Operation Control System functioned, programmers found themselves leaving their coding workstations and system consoles to actually sit with Census staff and see how the database was being used. Groves says because of that, needed software fixes are happening faster, leading to improved efficiency for a system that he says is vital to the 2010 Census.


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