Over the course of a Census Bureau career that spans six decades, Paul Friday designed and implemented computer systems that capture handwritten information on census forms and turn it into data, innovations that radically sped tabulation of the decennial population count with great accuracy and at a far lower cost.
Computers arrived at the bureau in the 1950s, but for a long time the only way to transfer information from paper forms to electronic devices was to type it in by hand. This was a laborious process that required hundreds and sometimes thousands of data entry workers.
Starting in the 1980s, Friday and a small team of engineers built systems that could scan the data through a combination of film, chemistry, optics and computer analysis. Friday authored the controlling software for the 1980 scanners, and in 1990 built both the hardware and wrote the analytical software, revamping the machines for each census. With every upgrade, the accuracy of the systems increased.
“For the past five decennial censuses, including the recent 2020 census, and for the many other Census Bureau surveys, Paul Friday’s scientific inventions have saved millions of dollars and made the processing drastically faster while providing the most accurate data possible,” said Katie Genadek, an economist at the bureau.
Friday is “the world’s leading expert on data capture,” said John Abowd, the Census Bureau’s chief scientist and associate director for research and methodology.
Friday was a scientific innovator from the start of his career as a software engineer and later as a hardware engineer. After developing a data capture system that could begin to read handwriting, he wrote new software for the 1980 census. For 1990, he completely revamped the scanner machine with hardware, mechanics, optics and software, creating a hybrid software-hardware device, and then created an assembly line to construct and deploy the machines—all within his government lab.
Under his leadership, the 1990 Film Optical Sensing Device for Input Computers was developed and deployed by his team within less than two years.
This sensing device was 22 times faster than the original 1960 machine, Genadek said. The 1990 decennial census paper forms were turned into machine readable data for tabulation in a “shocking” 100 days, three times faster than any decennial before it, she said.
After 1990, the bureau began looking into outsourcing its computer needs, leading Friday to begin a struggle to keep development in-house—a battle he continues to wage. He succeeded with the invention of the iCADE, the integrated Computer Assisted Data Entry system used—with updates—through the 2020 census. Friday developed the core interpretation algorithms, while other teams implemented a control and tracking system and handled the business aspects.
Friday said the new technology “could scan everything,” including paper questionnaires, censuses, survey returns, application forms, and other paper-based inputs.
The iCADE software currently has an interpretation error rate of less than 0.01% for numbers and less than 0.04% for letters, a performance unmatched in the commercial industry. It has now been used for more than 100 surveys and censuses, saving taxpayers millions of dollars.
After 60 years of service, Friday was the lead engineer and implementer of technology to record millions of paper forms from the 2020 decennial census, as well as smaller recent surveys like the economic and agricultural censuses, and the American Community Survey, an essential building block for making federal policy.
Even when the bureau contracts out some of the census technology, Friday works on developing the software, Abowd said. The payoff comes in accuracy and efficiency.
For example, when Census Bureau officials discovered that Native American tribal names were running outside the fixed margins, Friday modified the software to enable the computer to capture information beyond the normal response areas. He created software code that was tested and pushed into production even while the census was running, Abowd said.
“Paul’s technical skills are revered throughout the institution,” said Ron Jarmin, the bureau’s deputy director. “Paul is that guy. Nobody doubts Paul.”
Friday said he was inspired to work for the government by President John F. Kennedy’s call to service in the 1960s and found that his six decades as a federal employee have flown by. “Each new project was an interesting technological challenge. I never wanted to retire and go sit on the beach,” he said.
Friday said the job has given him the opportunity to pursue his lifelong interests in computers and developing complex software algorithms while allowing him to create and implement many cutting-edge projects in service to the nation.
“The census is written into the Constitution and I feel that I have done something important for my country,” Friday said.