By Marjorie Censer
Monday, April 19, 2010; 14
You filled out your census form and mailed it in. Then what happens to it?
Most likely it wound up in the hands of Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin. Nearly five years ago, the Census Bureau awarded Lockheed a roughly $500 million contract to collect and automatically scan the responses so the data can be entered into computers as part of a program called the Decennial Response Integration System.
Julie Dunlap, Lockheed's DRIS program manager, said the company has already processed the surge of forms from the "mail out-mail back" group -- those who simply filled out and returned the questionnaires promptly. That spike in responses occurred from mid-March through mid-April.
The responses arrived at one of three processing centers -- two Lockheed-owned facilities in Baltimore and Phoenix and a permanent Census Bureau-provided facility in Jeffersonville, Ind.
"At peak processing, we receive about 18 tractor-trailer loads of mail a day at each data center," Dunlap said. "So you can just imagine the amount of mail, the mountain of mail we receive at these data centers."
At the centers, mail sorting machines read the forms' bar codes to check in the responses within 48 hours (forms rejected by the sorters are checked in manually). Check-in allows Lockheed to inform the Census Bureau who has returned their forms -- enabling the bureau to pursue those who have not.
Lockheed then prepares the responses for scanning. Its machines use a "blend" of optical character recognition, optical mark recognition and patented algorithms to extract the information from each form, Dunlap said. Employees are available to examine forms deemed unreadable by the scanner.
"We take all that data, we put it obviously into a very large database and then that data is sent to the Census Bureau . . . for the final processing and determination of population counts," Dunlap said.
Those who do not respond to mailed forms may eventually see a census worker at their doors as the bureau tries to reach every person in the country.
"The next peak we're going to start seeing is those returns from the field now," Dunlap said, adding that the wave is expected in June. "As opposed to getting them mailed back on postal trucks, we're actually going to get trucks that have boxes of forms that are returned to us from those field offices."
Lockheed has hired about 13,000 temporary employees -- 2,500 each to staff the Baltimore and Phoenix data centers as well as 8,000 for 11 contact centers, according to spokeswoman Sheila Collins. At the contact centers, employees oversee telephone questionnaire assistance and follow-up operations.
This census is not the first in which Lockheed has played a role. In the 2000 Census, the company oversaw the image processing system, but Dunlap said that system represented only one piece of the data integration role.
"What the Census Bureau did in 2010 is they integrated all . . . of those contracts into a single contract, which is the Decennial Response Integration System," she added. "The contract strategy allowed us to provide a lot more efficiency, because now we're integrated and have the entire picture to be in charge of."
In a statement, the Census Bureau said the integration of the contracts was based on lessons learned from 2000.
In 2008, Lockheed held a dress rehearsal of the DRIS program, selecting two counties to serve as guinea pigs, according to Dunlap.
David Powner, director of information technology management issues at the Government Accountability Office, said Lockheed's processing system has been largely successful.
"Overall, it was a program that was planned well from an organizational perspective and, to date, the deployments have gone well," he said.
Dunlap said Lockheed will end its work by the end of September, and the Census Bureau is then slated to provide the population count to President Obama by the end of the year.