Census computer center may boost economy After 10 years, plan is in motion

December 12, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- Against a backdrop of months of gloomy economic news, top state officials rejoiced yesterday in some rare good tidings: completion of a complicated agreement that will bring a high technology computer center to the University of Maryland's new research park near Bowie.

The Maryland Board of Public Works put the final piece of the agreement in place by authorizing a $1.5 million grant to be used for land and infrastructure to support the U.S. Census Bureau computer center that will be part of the university's Science and Technology Center.

Planned for at least a decade, the center is beginning to take shape on a 466-acre former cattle farm at the northeast corner of the intersection of U.S. 50/301 and Route 3 at the eastern edge of Prince George's County.

To be located on 10.3 acres, the computer installation is to be used jointly by the Census Bureau and the University of Maryland. It will employ 70 to 100 workers, but state economic development officials said its importance is far greater as a magnet to attract businesses to Maryland interested in the types of information and research that can be generated there.

"This is a very powerful marketing tool," said Mark L. Wasserman, the state's Secretary of Economic and Employment Development. State and University of Maryland officials raved about the advantages to Maryland of having the Census Bureau's new "supercomputer" here. In combination with supercomputers already installed at the research park's only other tenant, the Institute for Defense Analysis, and at the nearby NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, they boasted that Maryland will have a "greater number of supercomputers per square mile than any place in the nation."

But Karen Wheeless, a spokeswoman for the Census Bureau, said calling their new computer a "supercomputer" may be "overselling it at this point." Census Bureau officials prefer to call it a "high-performance computer" that someday may be upgraded to supercomputer status, she said.

"The difference is semantics as much as anything," said Dr. Glenn Ricart, director of the Computer Science Center at the University of Maryland College Park. "The term 'supercomputer' is easily digestable to the public and is not inaccurate. 'High performance' is more general, takes in a greater range of things that Census has in mind."

Supercomputers are a new generation of computers capable of processing information faster and in a multitude of more sophisticated ways than conventional computers. An example is scientific visualization" -- a computer picture that visually illustrates information that otherwise would have been gleaned through the analysis of cold lists of numbers.

Supercomputers can also solve several problems simultaneously that must be done sequentially in conventional computers and can perform some functions that are either impossible with conventional computers or are too time-consuming to try.

Ms. Wheeless said that in addition to the enormous amount of socio-economic material generated and analyzed during each decennial census, the Census Bureau also gathers information involving national economic indicators, labor statistics, criminal justice statistics, and a variety of other information used by governments, private industry and businesses.

"One complaint our customers have is the time it takes to get the information to them. This would help us do that faster," she said.

"People also would like to see a little more analysis: How many are white? or female? or male? or have an income of under this or over that? To do those kinds of cross tabulations, you have to have computing power. The more computing power you have, the more helpful you can make the information."

Through a yet-to-be-built fiber optic link with College Park, the University of Maryland will be allowed to use the new computer for "numbers crunching" research during off-peak hours -- a resource with an estimated $6 million annual value to the school. Eventually, the university intends to construct its own building next to the Census site to house classrooms and a computer technology center.

"It's a good marriage," said Dr. Ricart.

U.S. Representative Steny H. Hoyer, D-Md., whose district encompasses Prince George's County, was credited yesterday with securing the $2.7 million in federal funds needed to design the $27 million, 125,000-square-foot Census Bureau facility. The state, the county and the city of Bowie also contributed to the venture, which is expected to open by mid-1996.

Some computer work now performed at the Census Bureau's headquarters in Suitland, Md., in Charlotte, N.C., and elsewhere around the nation will be consolidated at the Bowie research park, Ms. Wheeless said.

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