Hey, what could possibly go wrong with this?
Add paper census questionnaires to the long list of everyday items becoming quaint vestiges of tired technology, like landline phones, television armoires and butterfly ballots.
The Census Bureau already has started offering an Internet option to the 250,000 households it selects every month at random for the American Community Survey. Since becoming available in January, more than half the responses have come in on a secure site that requires codes and PIN numbers.
The bureau expects to use the Internet — plus smart phones and other technologies yet to be invented — for the next decennial census, in 2020.
I don’t think I’d call landline phones a “vestige,” since they still represent 63% of the American market, at least as of the end of 2011. More people are opting for wireless-only, but they’re still outnumbered 2:1. Half of all households have both, actually. Ironically, this is exactly what we’d expect to find from Census Bureau data, although this came from last June’s CDC’s National Health Information Survey instead.
Those of us with some experience in Internet surveys may laugh at the prospect of holding the decennial Census through this medium with any confidence level, but the Census Bureau says they have little choice. Congress won’t give them more money to poll each house in the old-fashioned way, so they need to find ways to make the process more efficient. That only works to a point, though:
The households selected for the survey still get their first contact the old-fashioned way, with a mailed letter telling them the questionnaire is on its way. Then they receive a letter telling them how to respond over the Internet. If they don’t use that option, they get a 28-page paper form a few weeks later.
The questions are listed on a green-tinted Web page that takes roughly 40 minutes to complete, with 24 questions on housing alone and up to 48 questions about every household resident.
If they want to save costs, why bother with the initial letter telling people the form is on its way? Why not just skip directly to Step 2, explaining how to answer the questionnaire on line? The Census Bureau gets a ton of earned media from national and local broadcasters talking about the process, so it won’t exactly be a surprise in 2020 when the instructions show up. This process sounds like the equivalent of a horrible trend at one of my former workplaces of holding pre-meeting meetings in order to set an agenda.
To get back to my original point, what could go wrong? Here’s an entirely unrelated article from Bloomberg that will have absolutely nothing to do with a possible outcome of that question, I’m sure. Trust me!
For decades, U.S.-owned technology giants have set up state-of-the-art factories, laboratories and training programs in China. Their aim was to use a super-cheap, lightly regulated production base to supply Chinese and world markets, and to harness Chinese scientific talent. Greater profits were the top priority, but the companies also claimed that a more computer- and Internet-savvy China would become more peaceful and democratic.
Chinese authorities demanded some technology as the price of access to their market. Yet most transfers were made voluntarily to Chinese partners. China’s hacking prowess makes clear that, as critics warned, the government and military benefited from widespread sharing of know-how directly applicable to spying, sabotage and theft of business secrets.
Paradoxically, the first known victims of China’s U.S.- enabled cybercapacities were Chinese citizens. These include dissidents who were tracked with technology sold by Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) and Yahoo! Inc. (YHOO) (YHOO), as well as ordinary people whose online content has been censored with products provided by Microsoft Corp (MSFT) (MSFT) and Google Inc (GOOG) (GOOG).
Those four companies, and many others, still supply official Chinese customers with capabilities easily used against U.S. government or business targets. (Google itself has repeatedly complained about attacks from China-based hackers.) These companies also continue to strengthen the technology base of a nation designated by the Defense Department as the greatest potential foreign threat to U.S. security.
Cisco, for example, says that its goals include maintaining “close relationships with government” and notes that the regime’s “good will” is important for operations, “enforcement,” sales and policy. IBM touts its capacity to “improve the way government” works, “solve problems and challenges in public administration,” and aid China’s “drive to build a harmonious society.” Intel Corp. (INTC) says its mission includes “strategic technology collaborations” with the government. Microsoft considers itself “a partner in developing the local IT ecosystem with the Chinese government.”
Who will be the US government’s partners on this program, and how secure will they make this process? When Rhode Island ends up with 62 House seats and we find that Nebraska has the greatest concentration of shipyard workers in the US, well, we might be asking ourselves a few questions about the wisdom of this decision.
Let’s take a poll on the concept! I’m sure the result will be scientifically unassailable: