With thousands of employees at its headquarters in Suitland, the U.S. Census Bureau has little in common with small, nimble Silicon Valley start-ups.
The Census Bureau’s chief technology officer, Avi Bender, is trying to change that.
In what was a rarely used basement, the agency has been modeling its tech hub after the spacious, open-plan offices at companies such as Facebook and Apple. Over the past couple of years, it has built a Center for Applied Technology, or CAT lab.
It is a large, glass-doored room filled with clusters of desktop computers, laptops and tablets running the Windows, Android and iOS operating systems. Employees sometimes prefer to sit on the rolling, cushion-topped filing cabinets instead of in the lab’s bright green chairs. A whiteboard is positioned at the front of the room, next to the words “Ideas @ Work” mounted on the wall.
The gear allows Census Bureau technology specialists to test new software on different devices in an environment designed to stir creativity.
“We tried to specifically create the feeling of an entrepreneur — a young environment where there are no cubicles. People sit in these high-tech work stations, with monitors along the walls,” Bender said.
The bureau is mostly interested in software that could better help the agency to collect and process survey information, Bender said. But it is also a place to brainstorm technology solutions to everyday problems at the bureau.
So far, a handful of projects have moved from the lab into agency work flow. In 2012, for instance, some employees were using computers and tablets to test Microsoft’s SharePoint, software that allows users to collaborate on documents, blogs and other functions.
Today, SharePoint has been deployed throughout the agency, Bender said. A few Census Bureau workers are testing software infrastructure that would help them process the influx of data expected to come from the 2020 Census.
Employees have also been using the lab to test mobile apps, Bender said. One app is called America’s Economy, and it allows smartphone users to view data from major economic indicators. Occasionally, the agency hosts code-a-thons in the CAT lab, and Census Bureau employees are invited to use publicly available “open” data to create apps and software.
Before the CAT lab existed, each division within the Census Bureau operated on its own, Bender said. Employees had to set up their own testing environments, and that cost more money, he added.
Employees flow in and out of the CAT lab every day. Though the lab was set up in part to encourage individual entrepreneurship, “they typically don’t go in there on their own unsupervised, [though] we try to create a risk-free environment” for experimentation, Bender said.
When it first started designing the lab in 2011, the Census Bureau tapped Gaithersburg-based IT contractor CNSI to equip the space, which cost about $1 million to build. CNSI’s contract is for $5 million over a three-year period; CNSI has about seven staffers permanently at the CAT lab, mainly to answer software questions and to maintain the hardware, said Vivek Gore, a senior vice president at the company.
Census employees “come down there, and the first engagement starts with a conversation. They say, ‘I’ve been faced with this problem. . . . How can I apply this technology?’ ” Bender said.
One such conversation led to a more efficient way of responding to surveys, Gore said. Last year, some Census Bureau analysts were struggling to manage thousands of e-mails to survey respondents, which could take weeks.
“One of the analysts would actually type in these e-mails one by one to send it out,” Gore said. At the CAT lab, “we devised a solution that would automate that entire process.”