The 2020 census will be here shortly, and the Census Bureau’s new CIO, Kevin Smith, is charged with making sure the technology is there to support this effort. Smith sat down with Federal Times to talk about the new technologies Census will be fielding and what this means for the rest of the bureau.
What was your first priority when you got to Census?
Well, the first priority was a good understanding of what was going on within the organization as well as what was going on with the technology for the 2020 census.
I found a lot of things happening, a lot of things going on to meet some schedules for operational tests of the census and I saw a lot of great things moving toward people taking the right decisions to move stuff toward cloud and toward appropriate technologies to support the Census.
My priority for the 2020 census was first off to make sure that the technology was sound and secure and going to be successful.
The other priorities I had were to look at the organization and help us streamline the way we collect and analyze and disseminate data into secure platforms that offer the flexibility for the end user because there are some unique needs within different mission areas of the Census. But offer that flexibility but at the same time secure the data and the platforms into a common maintainable format.
And the third thing is just there’s an evolution to move toward a service delivery organization. Continuing to use the federal government’s mandates and rules and blend those into an executable path to basically transform your organization into allocating the right resources toward technology, budget in the right way and planning toward technology.
Most people know the bureau for the decennial count but Census has a pretty wide mission. What new technologies are being driven by the Census that you think can then translate to other parts of the bureau?
From the standpoint of the Census, there are many other things we do: collect economic data, demographic data, many, many, many different surveys. But things what we’re doing is standardizing some of the ways we collect, analyze and distribute or disseminate the information through platforms.
So, a lot of stuff we’re learning and setting up for the 2020 census, based on the scale of the census, can be and will be reused within the rest of the other surveys to collect data in a secure fashion and to maintainable and flexible platforms.
How important are cloud, BYOD and other new technologies to Census’ mission?
For Census’ mission they’re extremely important. We need to be as flexible and adaptable as possible to future trends in technology and I think cloud offers us a lot of things we couldn’t do initially.
It’s not just for scalability, there are some advantages to the cloud for the flexibility it offers for us to set up things in a more secure fashion. It enables us to get back to the basics of how you secure an application and you secure a technology to allow data to come in and data to be secure, which you wouldn’t be able to do in a typical data center. But based on the nature of the cloud, we’re able to set things up quickly and turn them off quickly, as well as scale quickly and then reduce the need of the infrastructure quickly and so it’s more cost advantageous now to actually look at those things.
What are the unique security concerns that you face at Census that you didn’t face at the Patent and Trademark Office or other places you’ve worked?
I think the uniqueness is part of the fact that the entire model of the census relies on the public and businesses to supply data. So, public trust and public confidence is of utmost importance. If people don’t trust Census to collect data, we won’t be getting the data we need to be successful to provide the statistics the United States needs. So, that’s a unique factor that we have to look at.
The other unique factor at the Census is that there’s always a balance of: you can make something extremely secure but, at the same time, it’s hard to make a system perform once it’s extremely secure. So, there’s a balance that we have to have a very secure system, as well as a very highly performing system at the same time to meet the workloads we’re going to see in the in the 2020 census.
Within the cloud there’s some flexibility that allows us to get back to the basics. We’re able to do in the cloud – which we could do in a data center, as well as, just it’s more cost effective in the cloud – is to look at the application and look at the way someone would be responding to the census and take intentional moves to layer the application in appropriate places and isolate certain portions of it. They give us the visibility we need to see what’s happening, make decisions on what’s happening, control the performance to the right level and also secure the systems to the right level.
That’s what you’re doing for the home base here in D.C. But you also have all the enumerators out there – how are you dealing with security for all of these part-timers?
From the standpoint of response, from a technology aspect in the census, we’re collecting a lot of things electronically – an internet self-response from the public, we’re also collecting stuff through call centers to enable a call response – but from the enumeration aspect, we’re also collecting electronically. So, what are we doing for that workforce?
We’re working on giving them devices. We’re going to have a device-as-a-service given to them as a mobile device and we’re going to download an application to that device and put the proper security for encryption on the device and also put security for the log ins to the device. So, the enumerator can clearly log on to the device, upload the data they need to based on their interview and the data is removed from the device as quickly as possible. So, if it’s on the internet, the data is already off the device.
We’re doing those things to enable the workforce to be more flexible in collecting the data. But also, as a thought process at Census and from the operations standpoint, we’re also looking at using that technology to manage the workforce.
There’s an ability to look at what is the workload of each enumerator, where should they be going to do their work. Those factors help a lot within the operations of the census to be successful.
Are you using this to plot enumerators’ paths or is it more to monitor who is doing what?
It’s more of a monitoring of who’s doing what. What we’ve done with electronics from collecting the data, we know when someone’s filled out the survey. So, that time to know when they filled it out and then let people know where else we have to go, that time’s a lot quicker now. And so, that time frame shortened helps us move forward and do things.
We are looking at big data analytics from the standpoint of when we bring the data in, how we look at it from the statistical aspects.
Aaron Boyd is an awarding-winning journalist currently serving as editor of Federal Times — a Washington, D.C. institution covering federal workforce and contracting for more than 50 years — and Fifth Domain — a news and information hub focused on cybersecurity and cyberwar from a civilian, military and international perspective.