Census Bureau ‘comfortable’ with IT as census response deadline looms

(Census Bureau)

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The Census Bureau feels “comfortable” with its IT operations with only six days left to collect 2020 census responses from the remaining 4% of the U.S. population, a senior official said Thursday.

Census enumerators are using iPhones equipped with an app to record responses from the homeless population this week, an effort originally planned for June and July before the pandemic hit, Stephen Buckner, assistant director of communications, said during an AFCEA Bethesda webinar Thursday.

Buckner, who’s been with the Census Bureau for more than two decades, further expressed confidence in the bureau‘s timeline for testing the systems that will process census response data, almost a month after the Government Accountability Office reported officials were unsure of the potential impact of a condensed timeframe.

“We wouldn’t have already had all that testing done prior to when we scheduled it into the overall operational milestone,” Buckner said. “Yet again, with a pandemic, we planned for every single scenario there possibly was, but something that shut down the U.S. at the middle point of mailing out the forms and getting people to respond — having to suspend all of our field operations that we normally would put in place — we had a lot of changes.”

The Trump administration originally extended census response collection to Oct. 31 before moving the deadline back to Sept. 30, citing a need to meet the Dec. 31 deadline for apportioning House seats.

GAO found integration testing of 12 systems that will process census response data, originally slated for mid-June, won’t be finished until early October. But the bureau’s sequential testing strategy prioritizes the systems needed immediately ahead of those that won’t be needed for nine months, Buckner said.

“With GAO, they point out some really good things that we do need to work on, and we’ve constantly worked with them to rectify that,” Buckner said. “But for some of it, it’s just the cadence of systems, the census itself and when those systems are due to come online.”

The bureau offered an online response option for the first time with the 2020 census, and of the 66% of households that self-responded, 80% did so online.

Amazon‘s cloud allows for round-the-clock monitoring of incoming census responses with machine learning probing for fraudulent data.

“With so many information attacks that are going on domestically here and people trying to hack into your systems, we have to make sure that you can’t reverse engineer public data files that we’ve already released,” Buckner said.

To that end, the 2020 census marks the largest federal implementation of differential privacy to mask census responses. An algorithm swaps household characteristics at low levels of geography in a way that prevents reconstruction to identify individual while still preserving the accuracy of the data.

The bureau has had to keep oversight bodies, like its own Office of Inspector General (OIG), abreast of such additions to the census without revealing its security posture.

“That’s an important lesson I think on big IT projects,” Buckner said. “You have to be a partner with the IG, the GAO, with the Congress so that they understand every single step of the process.”

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2020 census, AFCEA Bethesda, Amazon, Census Bureau, Government Accountability Office (GAO), Stephen Buckner
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