Mobile device pilots giving Census a look into the future

Tuesday - 12/6/2011, 9:17pm EST

Brian McGrath, CIO, Census Bureau

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The 2020 Census may still be eight years away but the Census Bureau is testing commercial mobile devices to understand the best approach for the decennial count.

The bureau recently hired Agilex under a four-year, $6.4 million contract to provide technical services to the Census field organization for the development and exploration of apps to support field activities on mobile tablets.

"For a number of years now, the field representatives have been using automated capabilities running on a variety of laptops, but with the emergence of the tablet we see a form factor with a lot of benefits," said Brian McGrath, the Census Bureau's chief information officer in an interview with Federal News Radio. "From a cost perspective and functional user perspective, tablets are smaller and are easier to carry. We are taking a look at what technology and applications we can build to better augment and enhance their productivity in the field."

The Census conducts hundreds of surveys between the decennial counts, which now are the testing ground for what could work in 2020. Additionally, Census is using the mobile initiative to influence how it can better support telework.

"Our organization is in a midst of a reorganization and we are reducing the number of regional offices from 12 down to six," he said. "Part of that is to really support a mobile workforce. Our virtual desktop initiative activity is really the lynchpin to supporting our mobile workforce, both out in the field and the means by which we are delivering desktop services internally, but also we are preparing ourselves for a growth in telework activities. Our strategy is not really to lock in on any particular device, but more around any device, any time and using VDI to enable access to corporate resources from a broad myriad of devices."

BYOD possible

He said the Census also wants to explore the bring-your-own-device concept both for employees and decennial Census takers in 2020.

The Census's history of using mobile devices isn't filled with success. Before the 2010 count, the bureau decided to scrap its use of a handheld device after it failed to work properly.

But the difference between that device and what the bureau is testing now is clear. Census is looking at apps on commercial devices instead of hiring a vendor to build a separate device and software based on commercial technologies.

Under the contract with Agilex, McGrath said Census will test a variety of tablet devices that run the Apple IOS, Google's Android and Microsoft mobile Windows operating systems.

"The Census Bureau has been a pioneer in the use of mobile technologies to advance its mission," Ira Entis, president of Advanced Technologies a division of Agilex, said in a release. "One of our key focuses across government has been in empowering field workers, such as claims adjusters, inspectors and investigators that drive many agency missions. Working with the Census team, we can apply these solutions and best practices to streamline and improve their most critical processes."

Agilex will support the Technologies Management Office in expanding and enhancing the mobile application development practice within the Census Bureau. As part of this process, the company said it will help establish a common framework for mobile application development and implement a distributed development environment.

Field offices surveyed on which apps to test

McGrath said the field offices conducted research to figure out which apps would be best suited for use on a tablet device.

"We will pilot them on a couple different tablets and with some existing surveys we are conducting for the Census Bureau and other government agencies to gain some valuable insight into how these types of devices could really benefit the organization," he said. "It will be a couple of hundred users. The vision is while they are conducting the interview record the information on the tablet in real time."

Along with the field pilots, McGrath said Census is running a pilot with about 100 employees in its headquarters offices using Apple's iPad. He said the pilot will expand using a tablet running Android in the coming months.

"Employees are using it for remote access for email, document sharing, editing and creation of documents," McGrath said. "It's mainly for executives and other members of staff in the facility and for those who are on travel."

Like many agencies, Census is concerned about the security of mobile devices. While the Agilex contract doesn't deal directly with cybersecurity, McGrath said it complements another contract Census has for a mobile device management (MDM) system.