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Friday, May 7, 2010

More Busy Days At The Census Office

My blog now looks unloved, almost abandoned! I haven't had much time to work on it since I have now settled into a schedule that involves close to 16 hours of work each day. I barely have time to sleep, eat, shower and do other essential things between my two jobs. I have no idea how people get to do this for years on end. I will be very happy when the census bureau finishes up its work in a few months and lets me go!

We are now in the next phase of the NRFU process at the local census office. Since the time we sent out the binders to the enumerators, we have started receiving completed enumerator questionnaires. Crew Leaders and Field Office Supervisors drop off these questionnaires on a daily basis, sometimes more than once a day at our local census office.

I am part of a group of clerks at the office who have been assigned "office review" duties. Essentially, it is our duty to check the questionnaires over to make sure they are filled out correctly and completely. We are not in charge of verifying the accuracy of the information on the forms. We only make sure that all the sections are filled out as they should be, that the form has not been damaged or crumpled up, etc.

We were given a brief checklist of what to look for on the completed questionnaires, and were then trained for about 15 minutes on the first day I did my office review work. Since then, I have been looking at census questionnaires for several hours each day. I now know what to look for, where, on these questionnaires, so I don't even need the checklist any more. I have gotten good enough at it that I can check over a questionnaire completely in about a minute (we were initially taking about 5 minutes per questionnaire, especially if there was anything iffy about the questionnaire).

The reviewed questionnaires then go to another part of the office called the OCS side (Operational Control System), where their bar codes are scanned into the computer to let the census bureau know that information has been obtained from various households. The forms are then laid out in a specific way, packed into boxes and sent off to an external company that runs them through an optical scanner to actually read the information off them. Because of the unreliability of the OCS (that I talked about before), reviewed questionnaires have been piling up in the office without being scanned into the computer. I hope they get the kinks worked out soon because we may have to find extra space to store the questionnaires or stop the review if the situation continues for much longer!

Some of the questionnaires also go through a quality control step where someone from the office calls the respondent and verifies that the enumerator did really stop by, and collected the information reported on the form. The information on the form is also verified with some respondents.

Early on in the office review process, it was decided that we would not really "fail" a questionnaire just because the enumerator had filled it out in bad handwriting. The enumerators are trained on how to write on the forms because good writing is essential for the optical scanners to work correctly. But old habits die hard, I guess, and I have encountered many a questionnaire that would probably not get read correctly. I have no idea what happens when the scanner can not read a questionnaire, perhaps someone then picks the form up and enters the information on it into the computers by hand. I probably wouldn't want that operator's job. Obviously, all this could be avoided if the information had been entered directly into the computer instead of a paper form, but this is the government we are talking about here!

The first problem faced by the enumerator is that the clipboard they are given to put the questionnaire on is actually smaller than the questionnaire itself. Yes, that was my first reaction too! But I have gotten pretty good at keeping my jaw from dropping to the floor every time someone points out something atrociously stupid to me in a government office. Why can't they get clipboards that are sized appropriately for the questionnaires? You want to volunteer to bell the cat?!

Because of this, the enumerators have to constantly move the form around on their clipboard to make sure that their writing is neat and readable. Many enumerators get tired of doing this, so some parts of the form are always shabby compared to other parts. But even ignoring such quirks, I have seen several forms with such bad handwriting on them that I can't imagine the trainers emphasized the writing more than just mentioning it in passing.

Many enumerators don't know the difference between upper-case and lower-case letters. They mix them indiscriminately. The forms are supposed to have only upper-case letters on it, but many forms routinely have lower-case letters. Letters like "U", "T", and "I" seem to be particularly prone to being written in lower-case for some reason. Of course, it is not just enumerators who do this. I have colleagues at work (who have Ph.D.'s and other advanced degrees) who can't write proper upper-case block letters if their lives depended on it. Writing is just not emphasized in school in the US, and I can tell right now that my daughters are going to have horrendous hand-writing compared to me. Luckily, most things are filled out on the computer nowadays, making good handwriting a nice-to-have rather than a must-have, but still, to me it screams poor education when someone does not know how to write specific English letters in a specific case.

And then there are the numbers. The census bureau guide for enumerators tells them precisely how to form every single numeral on the form. But I have seen numbers on the forms that I know are numbers only because they are in boxes that are usually reserved for numbers! People seem to have a particular problem with 5's and 8's. But I have seen numerous problems with 0's, 2's and other numbers too.

One enumerator did not quite get the concept of boxes in a form that is supposed to be scanned into a computer. He just wrote as if he was writing on a plain piece of paper, with his letters and numbers spilling across the boxes freely. Another enumerator filled out his questionnaires in pen even though they are trained to only use a pencil, then wrote in pencil on top of the writing in pen to try to cover it up!

Enumerators are supposed to sign their name and put their employee ID on each enumerator questionnaire they turn in. I came across several who had forgotten to write in their employee ID's. A couple of enumerators used one ID on a few forms and a different ID (usually with just one number changed, or a couple of adjacent digits interchanged) on a few other forms. I also found a set of questionnaires where the employee ID was the same, but the enumerator signature and the writing inside the form clearly indicated the same person had not filled them out.

We haven't reviewed the forms for content, but I am sure there will be hilarious stories to tell if we actually did. Another review clerk showed me a weird form in which the respondent was 70 years old and claimed two 35-year-olds as his parents! And no, the writing did not seem to indicate that the form had been filled out by a robot since, in that case, at least the writing would be neat and precise! It looked more like the enumerator had collected the information at the end of a long day and was too brain-dead to notice the discrepancy.

As far as my blogging is concerned, last week was one of the first weeks in a long, long time when my blog was not visited by anybody from a new country. I wanted to write up a post on Sunday about that unusual occurence, but I didn't have time to get to it. Between last Sunday and now, though, visitors from 3 new countries have visited my blog. They are from Macao, Cambodia and The Barbados. My flagcounter widget now has 131 flags on it.

This post has already become longer than I intended it to be, so I am going to stop at this point. I wanted to write a short note just to make sure everyone knew I had not just abandoned my blog on a whim. I will try to put such short posts together every now and then, but my schedule is likely to be chaotic for at least the next several weeks. So, the next post will happen when it happens. As somebody once said, nothing is before it is . . .

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