The 2010 Census: Making Systems Engineering Count

September 2010
Topics: Systems Engineering
As part of its preparations for the 2010 Census, the Census Bureau asked MITRE for systems engineering support to increase the efficiency of its operations and improve the accuracy and reporting of census data in preparation.
MITRE helps Census with systems engineering

This year, for the twenty-third time, the Federal Government is heeding the command of Article 1, Section 2, of the United States Constitution that an "Enumeration shall be made." The U.S. Census Bureau, through surveys mailed and visits paid to over 130 million housing units, will tally more than 300 million people who comprise our nation's citizenry. The effort will cost over $12 billion and required the fielding of a massive temporary army of census takers.

The goal of this huge investment in money and human resources is to ensure that representation and remuneration are fairly divided among the states. Before each Decennial Census, the Census Bureau explores ways to increase the efficiency of its operations, saving taxpayers money while also improving the accuracy and reporting of census data. Before the 2010 Census, the bureau asked MITRE for systems engineering support as it updated existing technology and methodology.

How to Explain How

Roger Burdette, project leader for MITRE's census work, explained "The bureau has conducted censuses every 10 years since 1790, so it knows how to do its job. But contractors outside the bureau sometimes had difficulty understanding how this complex, nation-wide undertaking is accomplished. What Census asked us to do was to aid them in documenting its business operations so that staff could communicate better with contractors and stakeholders."

The completion of the 2010 Census requires 44 different business operations, so the Census/MITRE Team interviewed bureau personnel involved in each operation to understand and document their procedures. Initial drafts demonstrated that although the team was on the right path, the documents did not convey procedures in a straightforward enough way, particularly for readers who lacked a background in Census processes.

Tailoring the Systems Engineering Approach

Systems engineering can be a powerful tool, but the Census /MITRE Team knew they would have to tailor the technical approach to ensure the best fit for this target audience. First, MITRE analyzed and revised the documentation. Says Burdette, "We developed modified techniques for diagramming business processes that outside contractors and new staff could pick up and understand with very little preliminary knowledge."

One of the bureau's goals was to transfer MITRE's technical approach to Census personnel. "When we prepared the first operations and systems plans," says Andrew Ide, the lead for the MITRE documentation team, "the joint team was drawing all the flows and writing the narratives. But as we did so, we were also training other bureau staff on how to use the modified techniques. Ultimately, we were able to successfully transition it entirely to them."

Calling a Task a Task

Once the Census/MITRE team finished documenting all the details of census taking, it was time to use that knowledge improving the efficiency of the 2010 count. In previous censuses, the bureau had followed a decentralized strategy, establishing more than 500 local offices across the country staffed with people who knew the surrounding area and its population well. While this approach resulted in accurate and timely counts, it also resulted in variations in the approach used to solve certain challenges.

Additionally, the decennial operation itself consisted of more than 40 separate sub-operations that were coordinated and integrated, but by necessity required individual focus by different divisions within the bureau. While many of these sub-operations used essentially the same systems to perform the same tasks, what they called those systems and tasks differed from sub-operation to sub-operation. The task that sub-operation-1 called A, sub-operation-2 called B.

When the bureau's information technology contractors began designing systems to automate all of the sub-operations, they found they were being asked to build a different version of the system for many sub-operations. Sub-operations-1 needed a system that recognized Task A, while sub-operation-2 needed a system that labeled that same task as B. Building multiple versions of the same system certainly wasn't going to save the taxpayers any money; the contractors needed a uniform census terminology on which to base their system design. That was another challenge for the Census/MITRE team.

Since the team had finished documenting all the sub-operations' business processes, they could identify by individual name each of the information flows and how they interacted across the entire census spectrum. The next step was to identify all the system names, all the different applications being used, the different types of processes, and security level of data files. All this information contributed to the development of a standard terminology guide. With terminology standardized, the contractors began developing unified systems that served the entire breadth of the bureau's operations.

2020 Vision

Working with the Census Bureau staff, MITRE helped identify technology advances that may completely transform the way the Census Bureau operates by the time the 2020 count comes along. Ide is confident that the systems engineering expertise the bureau has acquired during the ramp-up to the 2010 Census will allow it to incorporate and document changes required by new technology. "The Census Bureau employees' ability to apply systems engineering throughout their operations really impressed me. We're looking forward to working with them as they communicate to contractors and other stakeholders how to implement their innovative concepts."

To take full advantage of new technology, cut costs, and increase efficiency, the bureau will have to redesign many of its operations. MITRE is well positioned to continue its efforts to work alongside the bureau as the staff uses systems engineering to enhance their experimentation and modeling efforts to redesign infrastructures and reengineer business processes.

The Census Bureau understands that the most important factor in continuous improvement is the ability to plan effectively for large scale information technology efforts. The best approach to acquiring new technology is to make investments upfront. The later in a project timeline an organization makes a technology investment change, the more expensive it is to incorporate into the project's systems and the less flexibility the organization has to do so.

Even after the final doorbell is rung and the last census form tabulated, Burdette knows that MITRE's partnership with the Census Bureau will continue to evolve. "Our job from the start was to listen. Because if you can show that, yes, we are listening and we don't understand everything but we're going to ask questions and we're going to work on this together, then trust develops. And once you have that trust, then you can really start to build something strong and responsive together."

—by Christopher Lockheardt


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