Mobile support system for census representatives

Customer: Central Statistical Office.
The project carried out in support of censuses: Agricultural Census 2010, National Census 2011.

How it all began?

The project was launched in spring. Poland, like other European Union countries, had to carry out national censuses. The first were test censuses, then universal censuses at a large scale. A lot of work and preparations during the public procurement proceedings: the selection of subcontractors, planned technologies, IT solutions, resulted in the choice of a consortium, in which one of the most important roles has been entrusted to our company.

The purchaser clearly presented the objectives of the mobile application, which was intended as a main channel for obtaining census data. It was estimated that over 80% of the census will be carried out via the application (that is, with the help of census representatives).

Tasks assigned by the Central Statistical Office included:

  • The implementation of a mobile application for a total of 36 thousand users
  • The development of a solution providing security, consistency, and integrity of communication
  • Implementation management for the hardware infrastructure
  • Carrying out training for users
  • Service and support during census

It was obvious that the project had to be divided into several sub-projects managed as a part of one large project (or the program already) due to the critically short project deadlines, no room for delays (deadlines were specified in the Public Procurement Act) and the scale of the project.

Innovation or a turnkey solution?

The first and most difficult task was to prepare the mobile application. Initially it was to be a simple application using tools for the forms and surveys management, day planning, messages module, exchange of data with the server, and collecting GPS data, previously used by Softline customers. All mechanisms were sufficient. The exception was the forms module, which turned out to be the tip of the iceberg. Changes in assumptions, track validation or auto-complete of responses resulted in additional difficulties in implementation. It turned out that the old software would not meet the requirements, and there was no time to develop a new one. The team of analysts, designers, and developers created a hybrid which combined new functionalities with the existing engine tested on several thousand users. It was still necessary to supplement the application with additional functions to ensure the safety of a census representative and data security (including personal and confidential data). At the concept stage, it was assumed that they would be based on the PKI. Due to the inability to use standard solutions, we implemented a system for storing the private key on a SIM card, which was specially created for this project. Taking into account one of the major system requirements, which dictated the need to ensure the full off-line functionality of the system, a mapping mechanism (orthoimages + vectors) was implemented. The mechanisms for access to the mapping server could not be used, because the solution would work only when on-line. Therefore, completely new custom-made mapping engines were prepared. They provide full scaling, tiling, caching, and management of displayed layers by the census representative. 4mPOWER Census mobile application was ready.

Next step: data

A broad mobile application was only one element of the system. The data obtained using the application was encrypted and prepared for sending. The system was designed so that it was able to send data to the server without the input from the census representative. Question: what would happen if 20 thousand census representatives tried to send such data at the same time? Performance simulations of the system showed that a group of several communication servers is necessary for the system to work properly. Their main task is the terminal authentication, data decryption and forwarding them to the dispatching application and later to the microdata operational database. Thanks to software modifications and the use of LoadBalancer, we managed to achieve the situation where three servers were working at 90% capacity during the synchronization of all devices. It provided the safety to both the customer and the supplier. Bearing in mind the need to ensure high system availability, a backup center has been built with completely separate connections, servers and auxiliary equipment. The backup center took over the role of a central site within a few hours during tests.

Implementation works

After the completion of work on the application running on small terminals and prepared for large communication servers, implementation and integration work began. The first logistical challenge was to install the current version of the application on mobile devices distributed throughout Poland. We have developed Remote Device Manager application for this task. The solution enables to freely manage terminals: check the status, update the application, force sending data, retrieve geographical coordinates of the terminal, delete data, and even lock or completely reset the device. Further tasks mainly related to the environment setup, user management, maintaining data integrity and managing changes. The system began to form a consistent whole.

We share knowledge

The census structure included two user groups that used the mobile application. The first group consisted of census representatives (in two censuses of about 30 thousand people), who visited the respondents to interview with the application on a hand-held device. The second group consisted of municipal leaders, who were supposed to assist census representatives (both methodologically and technically). Both groups had to be trained in a non-extendable time. It required an individual approach to each group, because representatives and leaders relied on the same application, but they had different tasks. Two different training plans, two training scenarios, two types of exams. Realistically – two subprojects. Training prior to each census lasted 3 months (about one month for leaders, two months for representatives). All training consisted of three-day courses in groups not exceeding 20 persons. In addition, it had to be assumed that none of the participants should commute to training more than 60 km from the place of residence. This required the creation of dozens of training centers. Over 250 coaches equipped with laptops, projectors, and handheld devices delivered training. Despite the rigid schedule, which was identified as “fixed” for risk management, the life forced changes due to Smolensk disaster, and then two rounds of the presidential elections, as well as the floods that hit the southern part of Poland. Thanks to the determination and dedication of coaches and participants, we managed to finish training in time.

Zero hour

We know that a chain is as strong as its weakest link. On the first day, it turned out that one of the subsystems of other suppliers did not accept the desired load and representatives could not download the initial data needed for the job. Consultants providing service on the first line of support felt it firsthand. During one conversation (often lasting a minute), 17 more users tried to get through on the consultant phone looking for support. At the end of the second day, the situation slowly began to stabilize, and it was contained on the third day. The number of service calls decreased, meanwhile an on-line support system has been introduced, which also contributed to the reduction of load on the phone line. From the first to the last day of the census, the support service worked 12 hours a day, and it was provided by a dozen to several dozen people depending on the number of calls.

Our success

National Agricultural Census ended on December 31, 2010. The initial difficulties, which always accompany the pioneering ventures on a large scale, were quickly dispelled. Working for two months, the census representatives conducted 1 million 722 thousand surveys using the mobile application by Softline. The share of applications use in census channels was 94%. Looking back on the successful census, we consider that the success of the project is the result of the work of the whole team. Each subproject had a designated schedule not much different from the critical path. Subtle balancing between hard and soft management enabled to keep the relationship between the teams, maintain timely delivery of products and ensure their quality. Consistent use of management methodology, ongoing monitoring of project risk, and above all the commitment and determination of team members and the responsibilities of project managers brought us to the point where we can be proud of a successful implementation of the largest mobile system in Europe.

Project in numbers

2,479 municipal leaders
11,809 census representatives using the mobile application
1,722,310 - the number of surveys conducted using the application by Softline

The share of mobile application in the implementation of censuses: CAPI method (mobile application) 94% CATI method (phone interview) 4% CAII method (Internet self-census) 2%

“The census completed successfully, we have carried out all scheduled tasks” - says Wiesław Łagodziński, a spokesman for the Central Statistical Office

“The Agricultural Census 2010 was carried out by the CSO for the first time since Poland joined the European Union and for the first time with such extensive use of advanced IT solutions. They made us confident that this important task will be carried out while maintaining the highest standards of quality, yet very efficiently and accurately” - Janusz Dygaszewicz, director of the Central Census Bureau at CSO