The Australian Bureau of Statistics could soon be selling online advertising on its website cheek by jowl with inflation and unemployment figures as well as stinging businesses and researchers with up-front fees to access its vast data repositories as part of an aggressive Budget revenue clawback.
After announcing that next year’s Census will now go ahead as planned after all, Treasurer Joe Hockey and ascendant Parliamentary Secretary Kelly O’Dwyer have revealed an extra $250 million will be ploughed into the national statistician over five years to urgently overhaul the agency’s obsolete IT infrastructure that is so old it is danger of corrupting the national data pool.
However a proposed merger with the ABS and Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, dubbed Project Archer, now looks to be dead in the pre-Budget water.
But the cash splash on new computers and powerful software at the ABS appears to have come with the equivalent of an earn-out clause attached for the Bureau, which is now looking at ways to commercialise access to its vast data holdings that it has normally provided for free.
In a statement Mr Hockey said the ABS was “exploring new sources of revenue from sophisticated and commercial users of data and through better data services.”
The move to sell data and advertising risks getting a frosty reception from businesses which are required to provide the government with data in order to generate statistical sets that inform decisions spanning across economic analysis and planning to councils figuring out where to put playgrounds and schools.
“To improve the ABS’s long-term financial position, the ABS will pursue new sources of revenue and new ways to recover costs,” a detailed description of ABS’ planned overhaul says.
“The ABS will commence charging for more complex telephone and email enquiry services. This measure is consistent with the Australian Government Cost Recovery Policy. Requests for key headline statistics, such as the Consumer Price Index and Labour Force statistics, will continue to be available free-of-charge,” the description continues.
While charging for government held information is by no means new, neither is it popular especially where an agency holds a natural or compulsive monopoly on information.
The high cost of accessing corporate records held by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission remains deeply unpopular with both the business community and Cabinet members like Malcolm Turnbull who have strongly championed the economic benefits of providing Open Data for free over trying to monetise information holdings.
Similarly, many free market supporters remain fundamentally opposed to the idea of the government selling advertising on back of the services it delivers, like the Bureau of Meteorology’s recent foray into selling web ads alongside its online forecasts, because it puts the government in competition with private businesses.
Ideology and commercial politics aside, there is little essentially no disagreement that the ABS’ core IT and number crunching systems are desperately in need of modernisation.
“The ABS currently maintains more than 500 systems through our many business areas. Some of our most critical IT infrastructure components are over 30 years old,” the ABS said in its rundown of the overhaul.
“One in three ICT applications have been classed as unreliable, with issues occurring daily or weekly, putting critical statistical data at risk. Further, one in six applications are no longer supported by the vendor due to it being outdated technology.”
But it’s not just the computer systems at the ABS that will get an overhaul. The way it collects, samples and sucks-in data will be massively broadened to take advantage of so called Big Data spewed out by government departments and businesses alike.
“The ABS will transform Australia’s statistical infrastructure progressively over five years. The investment will deliver a modern infrastructure model that integrates and simplifies processes to improve our capability and responsiveness and drive innovation,” the ABS rundown says
The Bureau has also flagged introduction of “a trusted whole of Government data integration capability for policy research, analysis and program evaluation to drive productivity in the public and private sectors.”
There’s also good news for those providing the Statistician with data, whether they are families filling in eCensus forms or businesses submitting hiring and firing numbers.
The Bureau has promised “user-friendly online forms for all surveys to significantly reduce red tape” and promised to ask fewer questions on its survey forms “by designing forms that skip past questions that are not relevant to users (such as questions relating to childcare for people who have previously indicated they do not have children).”
The ABS says it will move to “secure multi-modal collection of data from Australian business and the public — including via the web and mobile technology — as well as using government administrative data, and big data sources.”
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