US census ditches handhelds for clipboards

Back to pen and paper

The US is giving up plans to issue researchers with handheld computers for their 2010 census, as changing specifications have driven the cost of each one beyond $8,500.

The next census is scheduled for 2010, and the US Census Bureau hired Harris Corp to create handsets suitable for the half-million researchers who have to knock on doors collecting the data.

The project was supposed to cost $600m, or about $1,200 per handset, but the Washington Post reports that changing requirements and badly estimated costs have driven the price up to $1.3bn for only 151,000 devices.

The handsets do have GPS and wireless connectivity to allow dynamic collection of the collected data, but that's hardly sufficient to account for a per-unit cost of $8,609.

The Census Bureau blames Harris Corp for misunderstanding its requirements and underestimating the complexity of the project. Harris blames the Census Bureau for failing to provide proper specifications and making 417 separate changes to the project during its lifetime.

Various groups, including the Government Accountability Office and House Appropriations Committee, have been picking over the problem and concluded that it was lack of communication on both sides that led to the ballooning costs. Harris had failed to take into account the cost of supporting users, as well as the complexity of the task the devices are expected to perform.

The last US census, in 2000, is estimated to have cost about $4.5bn (about $16 per person), but 2010 is going to break all records with an overall cost of $14.5bn.

For comparison, the last UK census, in 2001, came in at £254m – about $10 per person. It remains to be seen how much Deutsche Telecom can spend on the UK 2011 census. ®

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