Ethan Zuckerman’s online home, since 2003

If US government contractors had designed the iPhone

It’s an unseasonably beautiful day here in Western Massachusetts, roughly 30 degrees farenheight higher than it has any right to be, and I was sitting on my front stoop reading when my local census enumerator showed up. We made pleasant small talk about the weather, the remoteness of my house, the challenges of locating houses in our rural area, and then got down to the good stuff – attempting to find my neighbors on her handheld device, so she could ask them their correct mailing addresses.

The device she had strapped to her hand was a Harris HTC, which looks either like the ugliest cellphone you’ve ever seen, or a Palm Pilot designed by the US government. We scrolled through bad, inaccurate maps of the area, which looked like they’d been dumped from an early version of MapQuest, wondering how the ridgeline behind my house had magically been transformed into a navigable road, and talked about the device.

My enumerator was reasonably fond of her HTC – there were serious ergonomic problems, like a power button that tended to get inadvertently pressed when gripping the device, powering it off. And powering on isn’t exactly easy, given a multi-stage security process which requires a fingertip swipe, then a series of three security questions, answered by typing an on-screen keyboard with a stylus. But, all things considered, she was happy for a full-time job, and enjoying the chance to drive around our county on a gorgeous day, attempting to correct government maps and to ensure we all get sent our paper censuses.

I had to find out more about the device in question – how does a company get the contract to build 525,000 handheld computers? And why not just give everyone iPhones or Blackberries instead?

Well, Harris is a huge government and military contractor, which recently announced its intention to swallow Tyco Wireless, another huge government electronics contractor. Given that all their customer testemonials come from military personnel, my guess is that they don’t have much of a consumer products division. Neither do the folks who lost out on the bids, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.

They’re not making a whole lot of friends with this new device. Last year, the Government Accountability Office added the 2010 Census to a list of high-risk programs. Basically, it sounds like requirements changed several times, and Harris ended up very late to market, with a somewhat buggy device. This freaked people out, and the Census quickly announced that they wouldn’t actually be using the devices – they’d use them just to conduct the first stage of the census, checking addresses, while the actual census (conducted door to door, of people who hadn’t sent in the forms themselves) would take place using clipboards and paper.

In other words, the relatively lame device my friendly enumerator was carrying, which cost $600 million, doesn’t actually work well enough to use for its intended purpose, is still being used in the field, perhaps so that it can be readied for 2020? Anyone believe that we’ll be able to do better than a half-pound, paperback-book sized plastic brick within ten years?

I haven’t traced the story back thoroughly enough to understand why the US government didn’t use an off the shelf device. My guess is that the requirements (encrypted data streams between device and server, biometric security, a variety of paths towards data networks, mostly via cell networks) were tough for commercial handhelds to meet. But it seems like one pathway might have been to remove the most arduous of those requirements – the biometric sensor – and use a platform whose hardware had been extensively field-tested as a mobile phone, and simply debug a secure communications layer and a data collection application.

Then again, that’s probably why I don’t work on government IT projects anymore.

40 Responses to “If US government contractors had designed the iPhone”

  1. Miquel says:

    Aha! I just saw one of these in the hands of a guy on the Muni in San Francisco on Saturday. I was wondering if he was some guy trying to look cool with his old school smartphone or he was clinging to his own version of a Newton he had built. Then I saw the HTC logo on the top and realized that it was a new device, but I couldn’t figure out for the life of me which one. Ugly as sin device with a screen that appears to be unviewable in even the most minor of sunlight. Thanks for elaborating. Glad to have a Blackberry!

  2. Zain says:

    You’re so harsh…just because it doesn’t look like a smooth, shiny, alien turd and doesn’t match your Starbucks cup, there’s no way it could possibly be capable of handling a text file and a map. Get over yourselves.

  3. Ethan says:

    Zain, the point of the piece was that the system didn’t work, or didn’t work well enough to be deployed for the census.

  4. Peter says:

    I used one of these during the 2006 Census test in Texas. I thought it worked reasonably well for entering data. The main problem for me was the map. You had to exit the questionnaire program to access the map, and the map itself was so slow to load that it really didn’t make sense to do that. I mostly relied on my knowledge of the neighborhood to find the houses. I didn’t find the device heavy, though, and I am surprised to hear about problems with the on/off button.

  5. Gunnar says:

    Consumer oriented companies probably didn’t even bid. They have probably ruled out government work in general. For one thing, the government is set up to own IP when it pays for it. A company can claim that the IP is already a product, but they have to go through a lot to justify it. It’s a legal risk. And in this current climate, avoiding legal risk with the government seems like a good move.

    And if you calculate, it only comes out to $1142 per unit. That’s not much more than the $700 that ATT charges for its no contract iPhone, which still needs at least $70/month to operate. IOW, the govt device will be less expensive after 6.3 months.

    And the software and the map data can always be upgraded.

  6. Ethan says:

    Good insights, Gunnar – thank you. I was simply surprised that, given the diversity of consumer platforms out there, the focus would be on engineering something entirely new. I’m not sure your pricing comparison to a no-contract iPhone is entirely fair – I don’t believe the $600m spent to develop and build the Harris device includes network charges, but I haven’t seen the spreadsheets.

    The question I was trying to open in the post was whether there are circumstances where it would make sense for USG to relax requirements and use established technologies, rather than developing new platforms. As you correctly point out, that would require a new approach to IP as well as the changes in requirements I suggested in the original post.

  7. Trent says:

    I wonder if part of the reluctance to use off-the-shelf products would be the resulting inherent government endorsement.

    Wouldn’t want to show favoritism, now, would we?

  8. Louis says:

    A friend is working for the census, using one of these machines. We looked up some of the background documents on it– there’s quite a bit of material downloadable from census.gov.

    It is a somewhat quirky machine, but in its defense: the contract for it was let in 2002. This was before the Blackberry – iPhone boom. Palm handhelds were around, but they didn’t have networking capability. Arguably an iPhone could be a more capable device, but the iPhone wasn’t announced till 2007.

    For $600m Harris designed and built 600,000 of the census computers, including software. They’re ruggedized to military spec and networked real-time via Sprint wireless. Software updates are delivered transparently over the network, and data is uploaded to Census Bureau servers. Built-in GPS is putting precise fixes on addresses for the first time. And all this is subject to strict confidentiality. There’s a $250k fine with a year imprisonment for anyone leaking census data or allowing unauthorized access to one of the handheld computers.

    Moreover, the Census must hire and train 600,000 temporary workers. Canvassing the entire nation is messy and sometimes risky work. So far, despite its quirks, the system is working.

  9. Tang says:

    One of the govexec links says the government made its request for bids in January 2005. That half-answers the question of why they didn’t just use an iPhone; the platform would not exist for another two and a half years.

  10. Ethan says:

    Tang, the use of iPhone in the headline was more a point about using existing consumer hardware than custom-building, not about the specific platform.

    But your point, and especially the point Louis makes about timelines, is very useful. Understanding that the device was spec’d for the first time in 2002 makes it somewhat easier to understand. The design at that point is contemporary to the 1.0 Blackberry and to some of the early Java phones.

    This, for me, raises all sorts of other questions about design lifecycle and testing processes… and I would add that the reason I wrote the post was that the device wasn’t going to be used for the actual data collection of the census due to concerns about its functionality.

  11. redvine says:

    I’m sure if they relaxed the specs and didn’t require encryption or some of the other security that made this custom device necessary, a lot of bloggers would be attacking them for not having a secure solution. In government work, since everyone helps cut your pay check, everyone is a critic.

  12. Ed says:

    You know what? With a normal, $5 printed map I can find my way easier, surer and faster than you with your $100+++ Blackberries.

  13. iratecat says:

    Forgive me if I’m asking about something really obvious, but why does the census data need to be so heavily encrypted? Isn’t it going to be publicly available anyway?

  14. Steve says:

    Ed’s point about the $5 map is valid, but only solves the tip of the problem. My wife is working on the census and using one of these devices, and it is slow and cumbersome. She also felt that it would be easier for her to just collect the data on paper.

    But then, what happens next? They’d need to hire another army of drone workers to key in all the data from the hand written field reports. Tedious, error-prone work, and at that point collection errors are difficult to correct. Using the computerized system in the field means that the front line workers see and can correct the problems in the underlying database of addresses, which is one goal of the address canvas.

    To bad the handhelds can’t be used for the actual people count, though. Seems like with half a year to go before they start the 2010 count, it should be possible to knock the software into shape.

  15. Ethan says:

    Would love to hear thoughts on iratecat’s question. My guess is that while aggregate census information is public, individual census information is private. So knowing that the average family size in my county is 2.9 people is one thing, but knowing that my neighbor has fifteen children is another. But I don’t know – I just know that encryption was very clearly a major part of the initial spec for the device.

  16. JoeInBama says:

    About a month ago, some guy was hanging around my mailbox when I got home from work.

    I was a little leery when he said he was part of the 2010 census and was “checking” my address. He stood in front of my front door and “synced the gps” with his entry. His gadget kept screwing up so it took him a good 5 mins or so before he finished (or quit??)

    Ahh it’s only tax dollars…

  17. Nony Mouse says:

    The Census has morphed from being only about counting people to also include other statistical information: the types of people is the congressional imperative, the types and numbers of vehicles, telephones, electronics, networks, and other things is considered useful in hindsight, so a lot of households get these kind of questions, too. And a lot of people might not want their name, address, place of employment, and the kind of electronic goodies available in their house while they’re at work given out to the general populace.

  18. Charlie says:

    And yet the iPod is good enough for the army:

    http://www.newsweek.com/id/194623

  19. tom s. says:

    Ethan – see here for Title 13, the statute governing the Census and privacy: http://www.census.gov/geo/www/luca2010/luca_title13.html.

  20. John Costello says:

    BY LAW NO CENSUS DATA CAN BE RELEASED UNTIL AFTER 70 YEARS HAVE PASSED. THE STATISTICAL ABSTRACTS WILL BE RELEASED, BUT FOR THE REST, YOU HAVE TO WAIT UNTIL 2080.

  21. Cindy Reed says:

    I have worked for the Census in 1990 and 2000. Census maps are not like the maps you get from the visitor center or your insurance agent. They are much more detailed, hence the “ridge line becoming a road” – not really a road, just a dividing line. Census data is detailed down to the block you live on, hence the privacy issues. Census employees can go to federal prison if they leak any information about the data they collect. So privacy is a big issue.

  22. Faffnir says:

    Having worked in procurement for the Air Force many years ago, the question of why the Census Bureau didn’t buy an off-the-shelf unit is answered easily.
    There is a Federal law, and sorry, I’ve forgotten the citation, which basically says that everything that the Government buys must be made to Government specification and cannot be used for any other purpose. Even the machinery to make the government part can’t be used to make an equivalent civilian piece. Something simple like combat boots must be made to MIL spec and you can’t make the same boot for the civilian market. The government spec for a glass ashtray was something like 24 pages. Those $600 hammers? Close to 100 pages of spec. We had to hand make two custom circuit boards for an electronic switch at a cost of $5,000 each. IBM’s civilian price? About $300 for the pair. This was in the late ’70′s.

    Your Government at work.

  23. Mr L says:

    In regards to the iPhone comparisons above, it should be noted that development for that device also began in 2002. It’s also not really fair to compare the device’s per-unit cost against the $700 retail price of an unlocked iPhone; Apple’s hardware costs are generally estimated at being less than $350 apiece, and the government’s buying in bulk.

  24. dep says:

    A couple things. First, the idea that “everything that the Government buys must be made to Government specification and cannot be used for any other purpose” is a little strange, given the vast number of straight-from-Detroit cars bought and operated by the U.S. government. Clearly, there *are* ways around that requirement.

    Second, Al Gore was in love with his Blackberry during the 2000 campaign. So, even taking into account that the inventor of the Internet probably typed machine language directly into his, by 2002 the B’b'y was well along.

    Whether the GPS chip was as trivial in 2005 as it is now . . . dunno.

  25. Steven says:

    What a convergence. I worked on the 1980 census, I was a Military Contracting Officer and I worked as a Program Manager at Harris Corporation.

    We used white/green barred paper printed on a dot-matrix printer and decent maps of the area to confirm addresses. Not sure who had to read my lousy writing to input updates.

    Government procurement is regulated by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) and several supplements. There is no requirement to use MILSPEC parts anymore.

    In general, the requirements or desired capabilities drive the procurement of an item. Often times it is congress – earmarks or “pork” can drive procurement of particular items based on where they are manufactured (I doubt that is the case here – sounds like it was an open bid).

    The government often writes requirements poorly, writes excessive requirements and changes requirements mid-stream. The military strives to get the requirements from “the users”. Unfortunately, “the users” at the beginning of a project may be different than “the users” at the end of a project – and unhappy with the final result.

    Commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) products are often used. Sometimes straight up and sometimes they are modified. There is often a configuration management problem – particularly with electronic hardware and firmware. Suppliers may change things that don’t affect the commercial use of the product but do have an effect on the government’s use of the product. Changes may or may not be reflected with a new part number. This really causes logistics problems when buying spare parts a few years after the original purchase.

    Harris makes many good products. I was involved with some good programs and some not so good programs. We made our share of mistakes but it took the government to really mess things up.

  26. Nonny Mouse says:

    CENSUS WORKER WEIGHS IN:

    The Harris HHC will NOT be used again. Period.

    It is the worst example of government buying ever.

    With a microscopic 5Mb of RAM (yes, FIVE MEGABYTES), it was designed to take drink orders for American Airlines ONLY.

    A friend of Jeb or George shoehorned in a no-bid contract during the final days of the Bush administration is ALL the reason needed to explain how it got here.

    We all hate it. It’s a useless lump of dung.

    The next big phase of the Census is NRFU, Non-Response Follow-Up and the pitiful way the HHC has “performed” during Address Canvassing has indelibly left a bad impression. Nobody wants it anymore. We got saddled with it from crooked brainless greedheads in the last administration.

    Don’t blame US. Blame the Bushies.

  27. Mike says:

    You guys don’t get it. You’re thinking like engineers, not politicians. The reason they’re not going to use this thing for the actual census it the IT MIGHT ACTUALLY WORK AS DESIGNED AND MITIGATE FRAUD. Let’s see. A huge pile of paper census forms, or a computer database of GPS cross referenced people counts. Mmmmmmm,we can make the former up in any Chicago basement. Harder to do with a the latter. Rahm and the boys from Chicago got one look at this system and it had to go, go go……..

  28. Bruce says:

    Very interesting article and discussion. Thank you to all!

  29. gtex says:

    Faffnir,
    The rules may have changed since you worked Federal procurements. I work at NASA and we fly COTS (Commercial Off-the-Shelf) laptops and other electronic gear on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. No mods required, no special MIL-Spec requirements required to be met, and modified (reduced) flight hardware certification requirements have been put in-place to simplify and streamline the process of getting un-modified, “off-the-shelf” commercial items approved to fly on the manned vehicles (all of the devices must be “certified” to not cause in-flight safety hazards if they fail (internal short, for example), by either test, demonstration, or analysis). And the COTS certification rules can only be used if the equipment is not deemed critical for crew/vehicle safety or mission success. But usually there are no insurmountable problems in getting a COTS item approved for flight when we find one that does what we need.

    So I believe there is precedent in the current Federal procurement regs for use of non-MIL-Spec commercial items for the Census or other Federal Government terrestrial uses. Maybe the rules NASA uses only apply to procurements under a certain dollar value, and that’s why the Census had to buy non-COTS items that meet certain Federal or MIL-Spec requirements? (That would be a dumb and counter-productive rule in my opinion, as a tax payer.)

  30. J.M. Heinrichs says:

    1. http://www.htc.com/ca/about_htc.aspx
    2. Were they using Win Mobile?

    Cheers

  31. Jason says:

    I am amazed at how many apologists for the government and this device have found their way to your blog post. It couldn’t be possible that Harris brought this post to the attention of their employees could it? There is no excuse for the ridiculous amount of money thrown at this device that won’t work for the actual census. The government should treat contractors the same way any business does. If they don’t deliver, they don’t get paid. This is yet another example of government incompetence and reinforces my revulsion at nationalized health care, banking, and government regulation of greenhouse gases through cap and trade.

  32. census worker says:

    My concerns are two fold. The computer is very difficult to learn to use, the manual is over an inch thick. Included also was a manual on how to use a laptop (not provided). The device was lengthy to access and finger recognition doesn’t work too well then locks you out if IT doesn’t work.

    My second issue is that many people outside of towns were not even counted. Worse yet, management does not seem to care. After all this should be a count of citizens, you don’t leave out half because the post office or last census didn’t include them. We have had a lot of new housing since the last census.

    As an additional complaint, the post office is way behind in changing addresses from rural route to “911 addresses”, with some towns being given addresses that are next to impossible for real people to figure out, i.e. find an address.

  33. cc says:

    I am not as technically astute as many of you… But I am employed by the census and use this device everyday for hours a day. I gotta say, it isnt that bad. There are issues w/ the GPS device used to map addresses, sometimes it’s literally moving across the screen as I am attempting to map spot and address..or shows me across the street from where I KNOW am standing, in which case we can manually override, and I have heard of folks having issues with it being slow…but all in all I have not experienced any more problems with it than any other computer. Just had to weigh in.

  34. Mike says:

    Something non-DoD people don’t know: Harris Corporation is famous for employing incompetent engineers. They all went to third rate schools like the Florida Institute of Technology or Embry Riddle. You’ve not really met dumb until you’ve had a meeting with Harris engineers. I don’t know if they weed out the smart ones and drive them away, or whether the smart engineers never apply there at all.

    Harris stays in business because Florida is a swing state. So whoever is in the White House that year (Democrat and Republican) tries to buy votes by ensuring they don’t go completely out of business.

    Every single company and government procurement agent I know that has worked with Harris Corporation’s Florida engineers swears off ever calling them again.

    Contrary to an assertion earlier, there is no federal acquisition regulation saying they could use commercial components. I’ve worked in government acquisition for twenty five years and we are in fact encouraged to use commercial components and products.

    Harris employs third rate engineers and they did a fourth rate job. No surprise to those who know the shoddy quality of their work.

  35. Tracy Boudreaux says:

    Its not the military that is at fault. You can blame our current congressional “leaders” for that. Common sense doesnt enter into anything that Congress gets its hands on. Especially the dems. Remember they dont CARE about the Constitution, what the Constitution actually SAYS or means. They are there to remain in power (and if out…to get back into power). Nothing else comes into play. How else do you explain true idiots like Teddy “last one standing” Kennedy, Nancy “grandma” Pelosi, or Harry “gambler” Reid. And of course the current President is being led around by his handlers who do nothing but inflate his large ego. Instead of weeding out the incompetents (Harris for example)…they keep their friends in business..

  36. Henry says:

    The amazing thing here is bureaucracy! From the ground up in 2.5 years AND KEPT THE DEVELOPMENT SECRET. Given that this Digital Census Enumerator timeline–spec’d in 2002 and bid in 2005–shows the underlying inefficiency of government.

    “Government is not the solution to our problem. It is the problem.” -Ronald Reagan

  37. donkey kong says:

    Well I had fun reading all this good stuff, can’t wait to get mine tomorrow! Yes, I am working for the Census (started today) and will receive my HHC tomorrow. A week of training and then we start verifying what has been done so far by the “production listers”. I’m going to be a “QC lister” meaning checking the addresses which another has verified. My thought was, what will become of the 525,000 devices after the Census? Will they be useful for anything? Paperweights?…

  38. Giovanni says:

    The nationwide census “Tiger” maps are inaccurate and incomplete, and the errors were propagated into countless other state, local, and private map and GIS products. The labor involved in unwrinkling these data repeatedly at those local levels was immense, and can’t be accepted back upstream to the TIGER product.

    Government solution:
    Hire the untrained army to walk around and attempt good GPS fixes under front porches.

    Google solution:
    Add an “edit” function to google maps.

    A common refrain at Census (from a full-timer:)
    “Never enough time to do it right; always enough time to do it over again.”

  39. Maribago says:

    About Census results and confidentiality:

    Nothing wrong with the Census maintaining confidentiality about personally-identifiable information.

    What’s weird is that they also want to keep the x,y coordinates of houses confidential. Seems like the *outside* of our houses should be considered public as long as the *inside* is private, no?

  40. Harris Engineer says:

    @Mike- I’m a Harris software engineer freshly out of college, and I think that most of the engineers I’ve worked with here are pretty smart (not all). Yes they do hire quite a bit of Engineers from lower tier engineering schools such as UCF and FIT, but lately it seems they have been hiring from the better known engineering schools such as Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn, and Clemson (mostly south eastern schools, it’s hard to get people to relocate too far from home).

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