Scalability and Security: Priorities for the 2020 Census

Published: October 11, 2017

CENSUSCloud ComputingCybersecurity

Top leadership at the Census Bureau discuss the importance of scalability and security in its IT infrastructure for the 2020 Census

The upcoming 2020 Census promises to be the most technologically-advanced decennial survey to date. Among the differences it boasts from the 2010 Census is the expectation of large scale internet self-response options, redesigning the data collection and automation of a case management system and utilizing third party and other administrative records for address confirmation. The 2018 end-to-end testing will ensure smooth operations of data collection and systems in a ‘dry run’ before the 2020 performance. The priorities of the 2018 testing include the scalability of systems and protection of data.

Census leaders, Ron Jarmin and Enrique Lamas, Acting Director and Acting Deputy Director, explained that a focus of the 2018 testing is certifying the bureau’s scalability of IT systems to manage an increased data load and ensuring there are no system crashes.  

Testing will include validation of operations and systems related to multiple sources of administrative records and third-party data which will be integrated, processed and expected to work together in order to present address information to reduce field work. The computer processing, storage and capabilities of this work will be tested to ensure smooth operations within the systems. Moreover, the 2018 testing will need to validate that field operations, systems and all infrastructures are working in conformity and conjunction with the data requirements.

Given this, it is clear to see why system scalability is of such importance. New Census CIO, Kevin Smith, states that the agency will rely on cloud solutions to ensure the capacity and strength of systems. In addition to scalability, the CIO also looks to cloud for adaptability to future technology, “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,” says Smith.

Perhaps just as or even more important than scalability is the security of the data the Census Bureau will collect, store and analyze. Public trust in the security of data is vital to the success of collection responses. Furthermore, the agency must strike a balance between making the data extremely secure but also highly perform in its purposes. One of the first things Smith focused on after assuming the CIO position was to “make sure that the technology was sound and secure and going to be successful.”

The FY 2018 Census budget request describes the IT Security, Maintenance and System Testing project set to take place with the 2018 end-to-end event. In addition to software testing for all versions of software to be used during the census, system capabilities will be tested at multiple levels and moving from production to development environments. Security testing of systems will include “all external data transmission interfaces by a secure, asynchronous method employing product services procedures and connectivity.” Moreover, the bureau has decided to utilize a device-as-a-service approach for field workers to install the proper security for log in and encryption and ensure that data is uploaded and removed from the devices as efficiently as possible.

Again, the cloud is considered to give the security needed. Smith states that 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.”

The 2018 testing will indeed be crucial in affirming the scalability and security of systems for the 2020 Census. Investments to do so will continue to be pursued. The IT budget for FY 2018 saw a $74M increase over FY 2017 numbers under the “Census - 2020 Decennial Census Research and Testing, Operational Development, and Systems Testing” project. Moreover, Federal Computer Week reports that the agency’s initial cost estimate of the 2020 Decennial Census of $12.5B has increased by $3.1B to a total of $15.6B. A FY 2018 budget of $800M was originally requested earlier this year, however, the agency is instead expected to ask Congress for $987M to fund IT costs and additional prep and testing as well as additional contingency costs.