Census 2010 – a few thoughts

The government moves in mysterious ways and our government, perhaps, even more mysterious than others.

If you’re like me, you probably just finished watching Super Bowl XLIV.  I watched it in bits and pieces during a gathering at a friends’ place but, for some reason, one ad that captured my attention was the one for Census 2010.  The ad ended with a URL http://2010census.gov.  It also mentioned Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other vastly popular social network and I’m all about that, so I just had to check it out.

The census website looks pretty cool.  It gets extra props from me for featuring a snapshot of Chicago on the home page.  Now, if you’re thinking of getting a jumpstart on getting your census form and filling it out online now, you’ll be disappointed — you can’t do it.  In fact, even after April 1st, the National Census Day, you will NOT be able to complete your form online at all.  Not this time.  According to the site, the Census Bureau is “experimenting with Internet response for the future”.  Experimenting?  For the future?  Furthermore, the census form is not even available as a PDF to be printed off the web.  And before you will receive your form, first, you will receive a few days’ notice with a letter from the Census Bureau Director.

The website goes on to say: “Earlier in the decade, we researched an Internet option for 2010 and found that it:

  • Didn’t provide enough protection for individual census responses
  • Didn’t increase the percentage of people who responded
  • Didn’t save money”

“Earlier in the decade”?!  This research was conducted in 2000.  You would think that in 2009, as the Census Bureau was getting ready for Census 2010, someone, perhaps even the newly appointed US Government CTO, would’ve pointed out that in 9 years the world of technology and the Internet has progressed so far that research results from 2000 are no longer valid.  Apparently, the Census Bureau and statistics don’t always go hand-in-hand.  Otherwise, the Bureau would’ve known how much broadband has changed the Internet landscape of America; how many more homes now have Internet service vs. the numbers from 2000; how many purchases and other transactions are being conducted over the web; how many wi-fi enabled Internet connected mobile devices are out there.  Instead, the Census Bureau is promising to conduct another research in 2010 with results to be applied to Census 2020.  Scary!

If you think about all the paper, the printing costs, the mailing costs, the costs of humans sorting through all the returned forms — having a simple online form would it make it all so much more cost effective.  Oh well, not this time.  I can follow the Census Bureau on Twitter using my BlackBerry, but I can’t use the same BlackBerry to tell the Bureau how many people live in my house.  I use the Internet on a regular basis to submit information much more important and sensitive than whether I own my home and my “race”.  I, for one, would have no qualms over completing my Census form online.  What about you?

The census web site is very adamant about the fact that your census information is protected.  It says that “By law, the Census Bureau cannot share respondents’ answers with anyone, including the IRS, FBI, CIA or any other government agency.”  The Census form itself is only 10 questions.  The questions all appear rather innocuous.  It is not clear to me how the CIA, for example, would benefit from knowing that I own my home and that there are 4 people living in it.  On the other hand, if you’re on the terror watch list or on the FBI’s most wanted list and you participate in the census, I WANT that information and your address to be made available to the proper authorities.

It seems sadly ironic yet sadly appropriate that the National Census Day falls on April Fool’s Day.

If you have any insight into this, I would love for you to share it.

The IT department is dead, long live utility computing

41iway4zsul_aa240_.jpg I came across this interesting article in Network World talking about a new Nicholas Carr book, which predicts that utility computing will replace internal IT departments. I haven’t read the book, but, according to the Network World review, it sounds that the book predicts as more and more applications move “into the cloud”, the need for your traditional IT department will diminish, if not disappear all together. Salesforce.com, Google Apps and Google Mail, hosted VoIP are just a few examples of applications “in the cloud”. Of course, as to be expected, an article like that sparked a heated debate with people solidly perched on either side of the fence.

As I started thinking, I found myself somewhere in the middle of this argument. On one hand, I can’t help but agree with Mr. Carr. Even today I see a number of SMBs even amongst my client base that run very minimal IT departments, preferring instead to outsource or to use hosted or off-premise solutions, such as hosted e-mail, hosted VoIP, etc. I can imagine how in the very near future, the available hosted applications will become more powerful, more available and more prevalent. Software-as-a-service is a very attractive proposition to an SMB company, allowing access from anywhere and removing the headache of having to maintain, secure, backup related server(s). At the same time, I know companies who, while administering their own servers and developing their own custom applications, prefer not to have a server room and host their servers elsewhere.

On the other hand, I’m having a hard time envisioning certain companies running with no server room at all. I know of companies now, who, although perfect candidates for hosted solutions, are so protective of their data that they will not even entertain the idea of having their servers reside in someone else’s data center. Companies also want their software to work the way THEY work, thus custom application development efforts.

So pondering Mr. Carr’s statements, I think that he’s only 50% – 60% accurate in his predictions. The IT departments will be changing, their role in the organization will be changing, perhaps, even their name will be changing, but they will remain in a large number of companies out there.

Applications ‘in the cloud” are very real and are having a very profound impact on how we think about software. Automated and remote administration tools are reducing the the number of what someone else had called three-finger-salute monkeys. The IT departments in the companies are becoming more skilled, more agile, demonstrating and demanding a higher level of expertise and abilities. The basic functions — server maintenance, backup, email, some desktop applications — can and will be outsourced or moved off premises. What will remain are the strategic functions of IT, parts of internal systems that are near and dear to the firm’s heart, components that define a given company’s competitive advantage.