Australian government may take leave of its census

Big data and small government appear not to be compatible

Updated Australia's government is considering radically restructuring its national census.

The exercise, which cost $AU440 million in 2011, is under the microscope as the government assembles its 2015 budget.

Fairfax reports that the census could be delayed or replaced with a smaller survey. The Australian is less certain of the census' future, noting that it's a constitutional requirement (since it's the basis of electoral boundaries).

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is already under a resource squeeze, with ageing computer systems in the spotlight as being costly to maintain and costly to replace [We're pretty sure it uses Notes/Domino as its web back-end - Ed].

The newly-installed head of the ABS, David Kalasch, has said the agency needs hundreds of millions of dollars for a technology refresh.

The cost pressures have restricted some ABS activities. Its latest annual report states that in 2013-2014 it released 727 statistical publications, down from 807 in the previous year, but at the same time fielded growing traffic to its Website and reported 2.8 million document downloads (up from 2.4 million the previous year).

In spite of a difficult IT environment, the ABS has made valiant attempts to keep up with technology, and last year published an API to its data sets.

A spokesperson for Kelly O'Dwyer, parliamentary secretary to the treasurer, delivered a prepared statement to media, saying only that the government and ABS are consulting with stakeholders.

It's also likely that the ABS will look to expand the online collection of census data, since this would relieve some of the costs associated with data collection.

Even a revision to the census leaves some concerned at a loss of accuracy.

One of the country's leading demographers, KPMG's Bernard Salt, said quality data is fundamental to Australia's efficiency. Speaking to the ABC's AM radio programme, Salt said "arguably, an investment in a census is an investment in future efficiency.

"We need to be really efficient in the allocation of public and private investment, and you can only do that if you have good information systems," Salt concluded. ®

Update: The Sydney Morning Herald is now reporting that the proposal has come from the new boss of the ABS David Kalisch.

In an attempt to resolve the organisation's budget crisis, he has apparently asked the government to legislate for a ten-yearly census, rather than following the current five-year schedule. ®

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