To compile data for its 2010 survey, the Census Bureau is putting down pen and paper and picking up handheld computers.
The portable devices are being designed to allow census workers to immediately record information they gather when going door-to-door to American households, said Monty Wood, a spokesman for the Census Bureau.
The bureau will still send out a questionnaire and ask people to mail it back, but Wood said only about 65 percent of people actually do that. To get a sense of households who do not respond, the bureau sends workers to conduct in-person interviews.
Those workers used to write down answers on paper, which were then entered into a computer. Now, the information will be recorded on a computer and transmitted directly, increasing accuracy.
The technology will aim to reduce the risk that people are accidentally counted twice.
The move also is part of the agency's effort to keep costs down. Wood said the last census cost more than $6 billion, and the 2010 effort is expected to cost between $11 billion and $12 billion.
"The census is the most expensive peacetime operation that the country undertakes," he said.
The devices are part of a five-year, nearly $600 million contract that Melbourne, Fla.-based Harris Corp. (HRS) won to obtain field census data. Taiwan's High Tech Computer Corp. will make the devices, which will run a version of Redmond-based Microsoft Corp.'s (MSFT) Windows Mobile operating system.
They will be deployed between 2007 and 2009.
Wood said the devices will not be used as cell phones or for other functions such as sending e-mail, and will not replace bureau employees' BlackBerry communicators.
"It's not like a BlackBerry," he said. "It's specified designed for the census 2010 application."
Microsoft is trying to gain ground against Research in Motion Ltd.'s (RIMM) popular BlackBerry handhelds with its own line of "smart" phones, which also can do tasks like send e-mail.