The Deal With Data Collection

A federal professional shares strategies for rolling out an extensive campaign

Photo:sumner dilworthTitle: Associate Director for Decennial Census, U.S. Census Bureau
Location: Suitland, Maryland
Age: 63
Power Play: Provides executive leadership and direction in re-engineering the 2010 census

What do you look for in team collaboration?
The decennial is a huge operation; it’s the largest domestic mobilization project that our country does. We collaborate across disciplines and departments within the Census Bureau. I look for individuals who have had some background training in interpersonal relations, individuals who either by design or default have been forced to work in environments where they have had to learn another technical difficulty beside their own. We have a number of people who are very deep in one area whether it’s math or demographics, however, to do a census you have to understand project management, budgeting, scheduling, and as we move through the process those disciplines actually become almost more important than the technical disciplines.

How important is technology?
We embrace technology with both arms and legs. We have been a leader in the use of technology for data collection now for more than 50 years. We’ve developed our own optical scanning and paper scanning systems. We’ve been able to insert technology at every point along the way, right up to releasing a state-of-the-art Website www.2010.census.gov last week for the public to learn about the census. In fact, this summer we completed a canvass operation with hand-held computers. We had 140,000 people using custom built hand-held computers to verify addresses throughout the country and to assign GPS coordinates to every living structure in this country. It worked beyond our expectations.

How do you and your team manage deadlines?
When operations are up and running, we have a system providing us management information on a daily basis that is updated weekly by designated representatives. [The schedule] includes more than 10,000 lines to represent the various activities to get a decennial done and each set of those lines are managed by a system owner who then updates to the bigger schedule every week—where those activities are, if they are late, and if they work. That process is what we use to track where we are and where we’re going. We also have a risk management program, and when our operation starts we have a cost and progress system that gives us information of what should have been done and what cost and quality expectations are.

Once the operation starts, how do you prepare for glitches when everything is time-sensitive?
We have a program that’s a subset of the risk-management program that provides mitigation strategies and contingency plans. So for risk that we feel could knock us out of the water—we call those red risk—we have documented contingency plans that range from what we’ll do if an office is blown out of the water because of a natural disaster, if our computers freeze up, or what we’ll do in the case of an H1N1 outbreak. This is the kind of operation that the amount of time and energy we put in contingencies and work-arounds is probably high on the scale. We review our contingency plans weekly.

This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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