Groves ponders agile software for 2020 Census

The Census Bureau is ready to apply lessons learned from the 2010 population count to the next one in 2020. It\'s laying the groundwork to move away from large,...

By Max Cacas
Federal News Radio

Now that the public phase of the 2010 Census is completed, Census Bureau officials are taking what they learned from the past several years and using it to lay the groundwork for the next decennial population count.

Census Bureau Director Robert Groves said now would be a good opportunity to make a significant change in the way the agency develops information technology.

“One of the odd properties of software development of prior censuses,” said Groves in an interview with Federal News Radio, “is that lots of money was spent to develop a system that was used just one time and then abandoned. And then you’d build another one. We want to break that cycle.”

Groves said Census officials are planning on combining development for an existing survey conducted annually as a “platform for development, so that the software development for the 2020 Census will be part of the development and the evolution of the American Community Survey.”

The ACS is an on-going monthly survey sent to a sample of the population designed to gather demographic information. It is also used by some communities to determine how some government services are allocated.

“By the time 2020 occurs, we would have gone through a lot of production cycles and refinements of the piece of software that would be ramped up for the 2020 census,” he said. “That should be cheaper for the country and better for the Census Bureau.”

Such a move would align the Census Bureau with the mandates of White House officials who are now working to actively discourage long, multi-year IT development programs at agencies in favor of smaller, more agile and modular projects which can be developed and deployed in a shorter time, and for less money.

It would also let agencies better use new and developing technologies as they become available.

“I think it makes sense from our perspective,” said Groves. “We need to stay nimble in IT development. We’ve committed to Internet use in 2020 already, but we have to make sure we don’t prematurely lock-in to an Internet solution because the Internet of 2020 and the Internet of 2010 won’t resemble each other much, I suspect.”

Leslie Steele, CEO of InterImage, Inc. of Arlington, Va., an IT services and management consulting firm, said Groves and the Census Bureau are on the right track in considering agile and modular IT development.

For one thing, she said it encourages reuse of resources developed for one project in another project.

“It’s something that’s been bandied about in industry, but often is difficult to put into practice,” she said. “And where I think it’s been most difficult to put into practice are these monolithic development programs. And when things are broken down, considerably, into much smaller modules, into smaller bite-sized pieces, you find opportunities for re-use.”

Steele said there are two things that any agency needs to be mindful of in moving to an agile and modular approach to IT development. She said it’s important to carefully design the architecture of the modules, to determine how they fit and work together.

“If you approach it as, ‘I have to have the entire design laid out,’ you’ve defeated the purpose in having the ability to delay the commitment,” of feature sets and programming to use the most current resource available, she said.

Steele also said project management also becomes critical, because such a “just in time” approach requires “constant monitoring and the ability to make tradeoffs. You have to have the ability to adapt and adjust.”

But how does an agile approach for technology fit in an agency such as Census where the director is a political appointee and might not be around to see a project implemented.

She said Census taking this approach would encourage other government agencies to “more broadly accept modular development. There’s a concept here of eliminating waste. In software development, that means eliminating work-in-progress. You want output. So, if you break things down into useable components, the government is getting increasing levels of value.”

By comparison, Steele said such projects as the recently scrapped Justice Department case management system, and the recently scuttled financial management systems at the Department of Veterans Affairs and Small Business Administration, as examples of just the kind of large monolithic projects that are the antithesis of the agile and modular approach now being considered by the Census Bureau.

“In a big monolithic project you get three-quarters of the way through, and you realize, ‘Oh, no, this no longer meets our needs,’ or a different administration has a different set of priorities, and there’s a lot of wasted effort, and expense that’s gone in, to get nothing back,” Steele said.

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