Disruptive Innovations – E-Brazil vs Paper USA




The Harvard Business Review’s Daily Stat for Tuesday, April 6th, 2010 highlights a disruptive innovation in, of all things, census-taking.

It’s the battle against paper and electronic, and guess who leads the race?

According to the HBR Daily Stat (and the original source, Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística):

It’s a national census of hundreds of millions of people across 8 million square kilometers, using a workforce of 230,000 and a budget of $1.4 billion. The 2010 U.S. Census? No, it’s Brazil’s 2010 census. The current U.S. headcount, by contrast, requires 3.8 million workers and $14 billion. Census takers in Brazil use PDAs and laptops; those in the U.S. still rely mainly on paper (originally reported by CNN in the 2009 run-tup/testing for the 2010 census). – Source: Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatístic

This Daily Stat, coming the week just after Apple’s big iPad launch (reported to have sold 300,000 in the first day of sales, April 3rd, 2010), is a bit shocking to me, as someone who has been involved in digital content for over 15 years.

And it’s not because paper is the devil (although it frequently is, that’s another story for another day) – but because the cost savings and flexibility that could have easily been had, were dropped on the floor. What happened?

One Giant Step for Consumers, A Faceplant for Government

Sometimes government lags, and sometimes it leads – but maintaining parity with the commercial world, or for that matter a far less technologically developed country, would seem to be, well, obvious.

The US, being one of the largest commercial markets for smartphones, one would think would be a natural place to use what would seem to be a completely natural fit for the Census mission. GPS-enabled, off-the-shelf, 3G-powered, mobile devices, with local storage for data collection (or problematic coverage areas), and web-enabled connections to the back office – well,  just about any mobile device available on any network conceivable in the US would fit the bill.

Seeking Good Enough vs. Purpose-built

What happened? Nearly every teenager, let alone adult seems to have a smartphone that would fit the needs of Census taking. So how hard could it be to extend this to a once in 10 year project?

It seems the US Census Bureau made the classic Innovator’s Dilemma mistake, of aiming for a “perfect” single purpose-built device, which, as anyone familiar with classic (and misunderstood) “Waterfall Development” vs. “Agile Development” or for that matter “Custom Built” vs. “Configure and Integrate” could have seen coming.

While there is more to the end-to-end system of Census data collection than the upfront collection process (whether electronic or by paper), the fast-moving mobile industry appears to have caught Harris Corp. on the slow lane.

The bureau’s GPS saga began in 2006, the bureau hired Harris Corp. (HRS, Fortune 500), based in Melbourne, Fla., to develop 151,000 handheld computers equipped with GPS software, as well as the technical infrastructure to support the count. – Source: CNN

In 4 years, a lot has changed in the mobile/smartphone world – and it’s safe to say that the consumer world has led the charge here, hence the rise of the iPhone, Droid, Palm Pre, and more.

Watch Brazil

In contrast to having custom devices built, Brazil partnered with LG, one of the rising stars in the mobile world:

Brazil will start taking its population census in the second half of this year and to ensure a smooth and efficient counting, the Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatistica (IBGE) has roped in LG to supply 150,000 GM750 phones.

The phones will facilitate surveyors to take a population count on the Windows Mobile 6.5 powered phone along with the support of MS Office, web browsing etc. The phone unlike the retail version will sport MS’ honeycomb UI.

It is ruggedized (see photo), with it’s own app (not hardware), but otherwise, the core phone itself, is a phone anyone with $100 could buy at the corner mobile store.

The question is not paper or not paper – it’s what gets the job done, better, faster, cheaper (and yes, you can have all three)

By not doing this step electronically, the bureau is missing the opportunity to streamline its operations, said Hermann Habermann, a former deputy director of the Census Bureau. If workers had handhelds, they could more quickly receive updates on which residences have mailed back forms and more easily send back the completed online forms. – Source: CNN

Smartphones and real-time make the loop from the field to the back office far more efficient, and can allow the Census Bureau to target much more precisely. The end impact on local US Citizens?

The technology (would also help) better identify which Census tract a home is in, a crucial fact in determining an area’s representation in Congress and the distribution of more than $435 billion in federal funds every year.

Until now, the Census Bureau usually puts about 5% of residences in the wrong tract. With the GPS, it is aiming to reduce that error rate to 0.5%, said Daniel Weinberg, assistant director for the decennial census. – Source: CNN

Unfortunately, with the fall back to paper, the error rate is likely to remain, as is the (inadvertent) mis-distribution of funds.

Incidentally, Carl Frappaolo wrote about similar issues in paper vs. electronic filing with the IRS in his frequently referenced post “ECM – From Here to Eternity.” e-Filing rates (as percentage of total submissions) has since gone up, but continues to remain the anomaly rather than the norm.

Watch your peers, watch the technology trends – and be prepared to be disrupted.

If you have any other disruptive innovation tales (of success or woe), weigh in here – these waves can come fast, and it’s all hands on deck!

Team-based Innovation

Let me suggest you Take a Day to Innovate (with our 1 to 2 Day Innovation Workshop) – and you stand a much greater chance of avoiding issues like those that the US Census Bureau faced.

Do you have the right people on your innovation team? Do they have best innovation skills to create and deliver on the innovations they need?

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