World's biggest compute job... to be done by pen and paper

The US Census Bureau, which is charged with counting and analyzing the nation's 300 million residents in 2010, has just admitted that its technology is not ready for the job. And what was originally touted to be the first "high-tech count in the nation's history" will still be a highly manual process.

The US Census Bureau, which is charged with counting and analyzing the nation's 300 million residents in 2010, has just admitted that its technology is not ready for the job. And what was originally touted to be the first "high-tech count in the nation's history" will still be a highly manual process.

According to this report today at CNBC, US Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez purportedly told Congress that the bureau "will scrap plans to use handheld computers to collect information from the millions of Americans who don't return census forms mailed out by the government." The report also notes that the change cost an additional $3 billion, for a total estimated cost for the count exceeding $14 billion.

That's because the bureau will be hiring and training 600,000 temporary workers to go from door to door to collect the data. And then there was the $600 million to purchase the handheld computer systems. As the CNBC report mentions: "Census officials are being blamed for doing a poor job of spelling out technical requirements to the contractor... The computers proved too complex for some temporary workers who tried to use them in a test last year in North Carolina."

Ironically, the US Census Bureau was the first large-scale user of automation, which began with the use of punch-card sorters for the 1890 census. It took about eight years to tabulate the 1880 census, a time that was cut to two and a half years for 1890. The total population of 62,622,250 was announced after only six weeks of processing.

UPDATE: Blogging colleague Michael Krigsman, who knows a colossal failure in the making when he sees one, weighed in on the Census snafu.

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