1001.0 - Annual Report - ABS Annual Report, 2005-06  
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Contents >> Section 4 - Special Articles >> Chapter 6 - Communicating statistics to the nation

Chapter 6 - Communicating statistics to the nation

BACKGROUND

The ABS makes a valuable contribution to decision making, research and discussion in the Australian community by being an information provider to the nation. Its statistics are a key contributor to an effective Australian democracy. A major objective of the ABS is to increase the number of users, and the appropriate use of statistical information for informed decision making. To support this the ABS releases statistics and provides services to assist clients in their use of those statistics.

From 1905 until the 1980s most ABS statistics were released as printed publications, though from the 1970s some statistics were released on microfiche or magnetic tape for specialist clients. From the mid 1980s, electronic services were significantly enhanced with the introduction of online time series systems (AUSSTATS) and the release of confidentialised unit record files on magnetic tape. With the emergence of Internet technologies, and the first release of the ABS web site in 1995, the ABS has increasingly focused on releasing statistics via the World Wide Web. The Internet allows ABS statistics to reach a much greater audience and allows a greater range of statistical information to be made available to Australians.

The ABS web site is one of the most heavily used government web sites in Australia with its use having grown exponentially over the last decade. In 2002, for the first time, the primary release of data from the Census of Population and Housing was on the ABS web site.

During its centenary year in 2005, the ABS continued to respond to the changing requirements and expectation of its users and to embrace new technologies to further the communication of statistics to the Australian community. In July 2005 the ABS made all online publications free of charge, and followed this in December by making all its statistics free on the web site. This represents a quantum step in making ABS statistics available to all Australians.

This article describes the evolution in the way the ABS communicates statistics to the nation and outlines where it is heading in the future.

HIGH VOLUME, INSTANT ACCESS TO ABS DATA

Technology is changing the way people communicate and Australians are noted early adopters of new technologies. The prevalence of computers in the home, mobile phones and SMS has changed the face of communication in Australia and presents new opportunities and means to communicate statistics.

In the information age, the need for information does not stop at the end of the working day. The web enables the ABS to provide up to date statistics day and night to people all over the world. Printed publications cannot reach as many users or provide the timeliness of information as can be provided on the web. This transition alone has initiated many changes in the way the ABS conducts business. The reducing demand for printed publications has enabled the ABS to increase its releases of electronic information on the web in a very cost-effective manner.

The ABS now offers an unprecedented amount of information to clients across the globe with over 365,000 pages of rich content. Use of the web site continues to grow with nearly 80 million ABS web pages viewed in 2005–06. In addition, over 650,000 downloads of ABS electronic publications were made.


GRAPH 6.1: ABS WEB SITE PAGES VIEWED, 1995-96 TO 2005–06
Graph 6.1: ABS Web site pages viewed, 1995-96 to 2005-06

Patterns of use of ABS information have changed since 2000–01 when nearly 800,000 copies of print publications were distributed and 91,000 electronic publications were downloaded from the web site. By 2005–06, this pattern of use was moving in the opposite direction, with 185,000 printed publications produced and over 650,000 electronic publications downloaded from the web site.

GRAPH 6.2: ABS PUBLICATIONS, NUMBER OF COPIES BY PAPER OR WEB DOWNLOADED, 2000–01 TO 2005–06

Graph 6.2: ABS publications, number of copies by paper or web downloaded, 2000-01 to 2005-06

COMMUNICATING STATISTICS TO THE NATION – THE PRESENT

The ABS is strongly committed to ensuring that its statistics are accessible and understandable to all its clients.

To achieve this, the ABS is improving awareness of the range of its statistics and services by using Email Notifications and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) on the web site, by providing statistics to the media, and through services such as the Library Extension Program and National Information Referral Service.

It is also a key ABS strategy to continually improve access to ABS statistics. Better web design and free statistics on the web are actively improving access to statistics. Recognising that access does not, of itself, ensure informed use of statistics, the ABS is also working on increasing the usefulness of the statistics it releases through more relevant and interesting presentation of statistical information. This work is being strongly informed by ABS research into the cognitive psychology of information seeking behaviour (Data Communication: Emerging International Trends and Practices of the ABS, 2006 (cat. no. 1211.0)), by the ABS program of user consultation and web usability testing, as well as a renewed responsiveness to client feedback.

Image: The Hon Chris Pearce MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, with the Deputy Australian Statistician, Susan Linacre, and the ABS Victorian Office staff on the day statistics became free on the web.

The Hon Chris Pearce MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer, with the Deputy Australian Statistician, Susan Linacre,
and the ABS Victorian Office staff on the day statistics became free on the web.

STATISTICS PROVIDED FREE OF CHARGE

The ABS has a legislative, and a fiercely held organisational, commitment to the Australian community to publish the results of all statistical collections that it conducts. ABS recognises and values the assistance of business and households in providing this data and acknowledges that the work of the ABS would not be possible without this contribution.

ABS statistics are an essential part of the information infrastructure that underlies policy formulation and decision making in Australia. Like other core national infrastructure, such as roads, there is an expectation from the community that ABS statistics will be free. In response to this, in June 2005, following provision of additional Australian Government funding, the ABS made electronic publications free on its web site. From December 2005 all ABS output on the web site was made free of charge with the Hon Peter Costello MP, Treasurer, making the announcement as an ABS centenary tribute to the people of Australia.

As a result of this move the Australian community now has free access to many thousands of spreadsheets and census profiles, as well as to electronic versions of familiar ABS publications. The Australian community has responded keenly. Over 100,000 files were downloaded from the web site in January 2006, doubling the usual rate for that time of the year. During March 2006 over 250,000 downloads were made, again more than double the usual download rate.

USER FRIENDLY ACCESS TO STATISTICS ON THE WEB

Following extensive client consultation and taking advantage of opportunities presented by new technologies, the ABS web site underwent a series of changes during 2005–06. The last of these, in January 2006, saw the release of a major re-design and re-structure of the 'Statistics' area of the site. The restructure grouped related materials together more intuitively and provided additional information access points for clients. The new design acknowledges that various types of users seek information in different ways. Users of the web site can now find statistical products by Title, Topic, ABS Catalogue Number, or by Release Date. In addition, the world's most popular search engine, Google, has been added to the site.

Clients have been enthusiastic about the new design and services such as RSS and Email Notification and have also been impressed at the responsiveness of ABS to suggestions for further enhancements. The ABS web site is now considered among its peers in the international statistical community to be at the forefront of innovation in statistical dissemination.

Chart: New design for the 'Statistics' area on the ABS web site

New design for the 'Statistics' area on the ABS web site.

FREE TELEPHONE ENQUIRY SERVICE

The National Information and Referral Service (NIRS) is a free telephone enquiry service, which is the first point of call for many clients who wish to speak to the ABS. NIRS consultants are familiar with the full range of statistical data produced by the ABS. For many straightforward enquiries, the NIRS assists callers to navigate the ABS web site to find the information they need. For more complex or wide-ranging enquiries, the NIRS will refer clients to specific areas on the ABS web site, to public libraries or to Information or Statistical Consultants. In cases where the ABS does not collect the data, the NIRS can often suggest other agencies or departments which may be able to help. Over 64,000 calls were received by the NIRS in 2005–06.

PARTNERING WITH AUSTRALIAN LIBRARIES

The ABS recognises the unique role that libraries play in providing information to the nation and, through the Library Extension Program (LEP), works with over 500 libraries to assist them to provide statistics and statistical information to their communities. Established in 1991, the LEP is an important part of the Bureau's commitment to enabling free community access to ABS statistics and is a free service to eligible libraries. Member libraries receive free training and support to help them assist library users to find and use ABS statistics, as well as a range of free ABS products. This service is currently being expanded to an Extension Services Program to support clients beyond the library community.

INFORMATION CONSULTANCY

Where clients require specialist or tailored data that is not available in standard ABS publications, it can often be provided on a fee-for-service basis. ABS Information Consultants and, on occasion, subject matter specialists, provide a wide range of ABS data tailored to meet individual needs. These include
    • tailored reports with tables, commentary, graphs and maps
    • customised demographic and other data, and
    • data for the most recent period available or extending back in time.
STATISTICAL CONSULTANCY

The ABS also offers a specialist Statistical Consultancy service, which provides complete statistical solutions to clients to assist them to conduct high quality statistical research for informed decision making. Professional statisticians with wide ranging experience and expertise in survey design, data analysis, and specialist knowledge in a range of statistical fields contribute to the service. A free one hour consultancy service to discuss statistical issues is provided, and beyond this a statistical consultancy is offered on a fee-for-service basis.

ASSISTING CLIENTS WITH VISUAL IMPAIRMENT

To assist visually impaired clients, the ABS operates in accordance with the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) guidelines and is working toward meeting the requirements of the World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. Where requested, the ABS will also make arrangements for Vision Australia to translate the product into a more appropriate format. This service is provided at no cost to the client.

IMPROVED ACCESS TO MICRODATA

ABS clients engaged in research and policy making often require access to more detailed data than is available free on the web site or that can be purchased on a consultancy basis. The ABS recognises that data at the individual respondent level (microdata) is a rich source for research and analysis. The ABS is committed to ensuring that it is used as fully as possible, while at the same time protecting the confidentiality of the respondents who provided the information.

Microdata, in the form of Confidentialised Unit Record Files (CURFs) is generally produced as a standard survey output for household surveys and is therefore part of the ABS Basic Information Set (BIS). However, unlike many BIS products (such as publications or spreadsheets), access to microdata is subject to a Determination made under the Census and Statistics Act 1905. This allows the Australian Statistician to provide access to microdata only if all identifying information is removed prior to release and the information is released in a manner that is not likely to lead to the identification of a particular person or organisation. In addition, CURF clients and their employing organisations are required to sign a legal undertaking that governs their use of the microdata. From 1 July 2006, the cost of disseminating CURFs has been reduced from $8,000 to $1,320. It is anticipated that this will greatly increase accessibility of CURF microdata.

REMOTE ACCESS DATA LABORATORY

The availability of CURFs has been crucial to making microdata available to researchers. CURFs, originally available only on CD-ROM, enable clients to use the data on their own computers but with considerable restrictions on the level of detail available. The establishment of the Remote Access Data Laboratory (RADL) in 2004 has allowed more detailed CURF data to be available to researchers while also ensuring increased protection of data confidentiality. Users do not have access to the data directly, rather they submit statistical queries to the RADL system, which supplies outputs that maintain confidentiality. ABS CURF data is contributing strongly to research being undertaken in universities and other research institutions with more than 300 research articles, papers and theses on topics as diverse as the effectiveness of Indigenous Australians' job search strategies and rates of anxiety and depression in older Australians being published using CURF data since January 2003. More information on the CURF research activities can be found on the ABS website (see 'services we provide').

ENABLING ACCESS TO MICRODATA IN THE RESEARCH COMMUNITY

The ABS has negotiated a number of agreements with education and research institutions to increase the use of its data in research. An important agreement has been that with the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee to provide researchers in most universities with access to CURFs for research and teaching purposes.

COMMUNICATING STATISTICS – THE FUTURE

TELLING THE STORY BEHIND THE NUMBERS

Following the success of the re-design of the web site in 2005–06, the ABS is now turning its attention to presenting web content that is more relevant to client needs, more understandable and more interesting.

This follows a review of the cognitive psychology literature and the development of principles and guidelines for content preparation and on-screen presentation of statistical information. These will assist ABS authors prepare statistical content that will engage the interest of current and future users of ABS statistics.

At present, the ABS is working on presenting information on the web in a layered form, with the simplest information presented first, the most complex information last, and using hyperlinks to allow easy navigation from layer to layer. This approach also applies to the presentation of metadata (information about the data) and will allow clients to discover the supporting information appropriate to their needs. In doing so, the ABS will improve the understanding of our statistics by allowing clients to apply statistical information in the right context.

These developments will make ABS statistics easier to locate and much easier to understand, helping to increase the statistical literacy of the Australian community.

COMMUNICATING THE CENSUS

Most data for previous population censuses have been released in the form of tables in printed publications and in spreadsheets. The static nature of these tables did not allow clients to customise data to suit their individual needs. Clients needing even minor variations to tables have previously had to rely on, and pay for, customised tables of data. The paths to data were complicated, and many users experienced difficulty in locating the information they required.

CENSUS DATA MADE SIMPLE

The 2006 Census presents the ABS with the opportunity to present data in new ways that are specifically designed to target the diverse needs of casual and more intense users. Not only will all standard 2006 Census data be available free on the ABS web site, but clients needing quick access to easy to understand census data will find that accessing this data will be more straightforward than in the past. In presenting 2006 Census data on the web for these clients, ABS has focused on ensuring that clients can help themselves to the data they need without having to understand complex census concepts.

INTERACTING WITH CENSUS DATA

For the 2006 Census clients will be able to interact with the data to design and populate their own tables. This will be of particular value to clients familiar with the more complex aspects of census variables, topics and geographic regions and who need to further analyse census data or explore areas of particular interest. This product, replacing the longstanding CDATA, will be free on the web site and has been designed as a self-help tool that does not require clients to learn to use a complex application, allowing clients to focus on the data rather than the product itself.

To obtain an additional level of detail and interactivity, clients may, on a fee paying basis, access data sourced from the complete Census Unit Record File. This provides the greatest available level of flexibility and creativity for researchers. As with CURFs, access to this product will require clients and their employing organisations to sign a legal undertaking that restricts their use of the data.

All the new census products represent significant advances in technology for the ABS and place it at the forefront of innovation among its peers in the community of national statistical agencies.

CONCLUSION

The ABS has released statistics for more than one hundred years, and been firmly committed over that period to informing the nation, and enhancing decision making, research and discussion in the Australian community, though its communication of statistics.

Communicating statistics has required the ABS to do more than simply publish the results of its statistical collections. It has required the ABS to use technology in ever more innovative ways to reach its increasingly diverse yet sophisticated audience. From free statistics on the web site, through to innovative information services, to specialist data services for researchers and policy makers, the ABS continues to promote the use and understanding of statistics to Australians and continues to be a key information provider to the nation.

The ABS is committed to continuing to find new ways to satisfy client needs, and to improve the processes used to disseminate statistics.


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