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In the 1999-2000 ABS Annual Report a special article was presented on Servicing Regional Data Requirements. The article described the increasing demand for statistical information on regional issues and set out a number of ABS initiatives to service these needs. These initiatives included:
This article provides an update of the various initiatives in regional statistics including the provision of new statistics, new services to increase access to regional statistics and advances in statistical geography to assist regional analysis. This article also discusses the development of an Information Development Plan for regional and rural statistics which is aimed at better understanding and prioritising the requirements for regional data, identifying new sources of regional information, and developing partnerships with other data suppliers to be able to meet the identified needs.
Regional issues continue to be high on the policy agenda for all levels of government. However the policy issues confronting, and in turn the information needs of, the different levels of government vary considerably.
At the national level the Australian Government's policy for regional Australia is articulated in its 2001 statement Stronger Regions: A Stronger Australia. The emphasis of the policy is on creating partnerships between government and communities which foster the development of self-reliant regions. This policy framework is built around four goals:
The policy framework encompasses management of the social and economic impact of structural change on communities; managing the social issues faced by regional communities and building their skills to cope with these; the improvement of business and investment to facilitate local economic growth and employment while being mindful of sustaining the environment; and the efficient and equitable delivery of regional services. A major policy theme underlying these goals is that of building community capacity and self-reliance.
Social objectives, particularly addressing socioeconomic disadvantage, feature strongly in the policy statement. The Australian Government's stated aim is that all Australians, regardless of where they live, have an opportunity to share in the social and economic benefits and opportunities that our societies create.
Regional issues are an important policy driver at state, territory and local government levels as well. These levels of government carry a major responsibility for regional economic and infrastructure development. Planning for regions is set in the larger context of state and territory development, and regional policy statements at this level therefore tend to be dominated by economic development imperatives, although social objectives are also prominent. Another particular focus for state, territory and local government is ensuring equity of access to services such as education, health, child care, sanitation and cultural facilities for regional communities.
Major information needs for regional policy
While the policy issues confronting the different levels of government are diverse, the major data requirements can be grouped within a number of broad themes derived from the policy concerns:
In addition to these themes there are a number of specific information needs required by the different levels of government. In terms of equitable access to services, the issue of demand for, and access to, services in regions is important for local and state and territory governments, while equitable access to information communications technology for regional Australians is a particular focus for the Australian Government.
Information needs are not necessarily discrete but are often concerned with understanding the connections and interactions between the various themes. In general, the response of the ABS has been to improve data quality and availability at a broad level so that the data are capable of supporting and informing a number of inter-related information needs.
Recent ABS initiatives in regional statistics
The ABS has commenced work on an Information Development Plan (IDP) for rural and regional statistics. An IDP is a framework that scopes the field of statistics in a given subject area no matter what their source, and which seeks to formally identify priorities for statistical development, and agree on roles in undertaking this development. The development of the Rural and Regional Statistics IDP involves consideration of the following questions:
In making recommendations for future statistical development, the IDP will incorporate an assessment of the overall feasibility of addressing specific information requirements and will take into account the priorities for new information identified from consultations held with stakeholder groups across Australia.
As a first step in the development of an IDP, the ABS has, in close consultation with the key stakeholders across the three tiers of government, produced a Rural and Regional Information Model. This describes the various ways in which a region may be defined and discusses in detail the nature and extent of current data demand and supply.
A strong degree of collaboration among data providers is a key factor in the development and subsequent implementation of the full IDP. While the ABS has, and will continue to have, a major role in the provision of regional data, it is recognised that other data providers have an important role to play, and indeed in some cases may be best placed to lead statistical development in a particular area. It is planned therefore that the recommendations made in the IDP will be developed and implemented collaboratively across agencies involved in the research and dissemination of regional data.
Providing new information on regions
In order to meet the significant data needs which have been identified, a number of projects have been undertaken to make new data sources available. While the majority of information collected by the ABS has traditionally been from surveys and censuses, for regional analysis the greatest improvements in the range of information available has come from administrative sources. These are the large datasets maintained by government departments as a function of carrying out their administrative responsibilities.
Obtaining information on the economic performance of regions is challenging as sources of industry data at regional level are scarce. By using Australian Taxation Office (ATO) business income tax data however, experimental estimates of business activity for regions (such as statistical divisions) have been produced. Standard tables include information such as the number of small businesses, expenses and profits, and a number of other business expense ratios. These regional business estimates have been welcomed by researchers as they inform to some degree, the state of business activity in regions. It is hoped to improve and continue this series using ATO Business Activity Statement data in future.
ABS regional employment estimates provide state and territory government agencies with important information on regional activity. The greatest needs of these agencies are for data to monitor the level of regional economic activity, to assist regional development, and the creation and monitoring of employment policies and programs. A criticism of current employment estimates however, has been that the regional information available from the Labour Force Survey has not been of sufficient quality to sustain meaningful regional analyses. Recognising this concern the ABS has introduced regional benchmarking as a way of improving the survey estimates.
With regard to providing information on regional wellbeing, and in particular understanding levels and sources of income in regions, the ABS has produced a range of statistics based on aggregated individual tax data sourced from the ATO. Estimates of income for wage and salary earners for different occupation groups at the statistical local area level have been published. This valuable series, which is now part of regular ABS output, provides a new measure of variations in wage and salaries and occupations across regions and over time. The ABS is currently developing regional estimates of total income using government cash benefits data sourced from the Department of Family and Community Services to add to the ATO information.
Social capital is a concept which can be measured in a variety of ways, particularly at the regional level. The ABS recently produced Information Paper: Measuring Social Capital - An Australian Framework and Indicators (cat. no. 1378.0) which will assist considerably in formalising and standardising measures of social capital. This is a growing area of research in regional studies, believed to be a critical element in the ability of regional communities to overcome challenges and a significant contributor to regional resilience.
To statistically support local regional policy at the state and territory government level, each ABS regional office maintains a unit dedicated to identifying, improving and disseminating the range of small area data relevant to their respective state or territory. The main focus of these units has been on the exploitation of the administrative holdings of government agencies. To date these projects have enabled the ABS to access a considerable range of administrative data much of which is now in the public domain through ABS outputs. These new data sources are made available through publications such as regional profiles and other products.
With respect to environmental issues, the ABS is currently examining the feasibility of producing regional information on natural resource management in the agricultural sector through the use of area based or land parcel surveying. This approach, if adopted, would allow for information to be produced for particular regions such as water catchments. Recently the ABS conducted a land management and salinity survey and a survey of water use by farmers as part of its agriculture statistics program. Results of the salinity survey were released for priority regions identified by the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality. Results of the survey of water use are yet to be published, however it is anticipated that they will be available at the statistical division level.
National Regional Profile - Making Regional Data Available and Accessible
The production of regional profiles for the states and territories was one of the first strategies used by the ABS to make regional indicator data available more frequently, using both ABS and non-ABS data sources. While these outputs have the flexibility to provide a reasonable statistical picture of specified regions, and remain in high demand, they are not developed in a consistent way across the whole country, and are somewhat different in the data items available from region to region. They do not enable a national comparison of regions on a consistent basis; an important requirement for many analyses of policy and program outcomes.
To facilitate such comparisons, and make small area data more accessible, the ABS released the National Regional Profile (cat. no. 1379.0.55.001) in 2004. The National Regional Profile (NRP) is an online suite of regional indicators available on the ABS web site. The profile provides data for a single year for standard Australian geographical regions, down to the statistical local area level.
In its initial deployment, the NRP contains regional indicators that are readily available for the whole of Australia such as population and other demographic variables, some headline economic indicators and, where possible, a selection of social and environmental data items. The intention is to update these indicators on an annual basis, continuing to include both ABS data and selected data sourced from external agencies.
Users of the NRP are able to select regions of interest using a pick-list or an interactive 'drill-down' map facility on the web site. For each area selected a fixed format report is provided comprising the available regional indicators. The NRP is now able to facilitate the consistent quantitative measurement, evaluation and comparison of the performance of regions.
It is anticipated that over time the NRP will be further enhanced and expanded with growth in the suite of indicators available. Future development of the NRP may also involve:
In addition to the NRP, regional data from the Census of Population and Housing has also been made more accessible. Basic Community Profiles (BCPs) from the 2001 census were made available (free of charge) via the ABS web site for the first time. For the 2006 census it is planned to enhance this service to allow clients to more easily specify the data and the geography of interest, and to enable clients to transfer data to their own Geographical Information Systems (GIS). In the interim, access to the NRP and BCPs is now available from the same web page.
Together, the new BCP and NRP facilities are able to provide a comprehensive set of social and economic indicators for standard geographical regions.
Developments in statistical geography
To enable regional analysis it is essential to have appropriate area classifications that align with user needs. In this regard the ABS has made significant progress on a number of fronts.
In 2001 the ABS introduced a new structure in its Australian Standard Geographical Classification (ASGC) - the Remoteness Structure. The Remoteness Structure is based on the Accessibility/Remoteness Index of Australia (ARIA) developed by the then Australian Government Department of Health and Aged Care and the National Centre for Social Applications of GIS. ARIA measures the remoteness of a point based on the physical road distance to the nearest Urban Centre (ASGC 1996) in each of a number of classes. The Remoteness Structure includes all Collection Districts (CDs), and therefore in aggregate, covers the whole of Australia.
The purpose of the Remoteness Structure is to classify CDs which share common characteristics of remoteness into broad geographical areas called Remoteness Areas. There are six Remoteness Areas in the structure:
The Remoteness Structure is now used for the production of standard ABS statistical output from population censuses and some ABS surveys. For the purposes of regional analysis, the Remoteness Structure has provided an additional framework on which to study regional characteristics. It is most suited to the analyses of changing patterns in the development and performance of broad regions across Australia.
Maximum geographical flexibility in the analysis of statistical data can be achieved with the use of geocoded data, that is, data linked to specific point locations on the earth's surface by latitude and longitude. Geocoding data offers users the means to define custom geographic regions on the basis of a spatial framework, which in contrast to frameworks based on administrative boundaries, will not be subject to change over time.
The power of geocoding lies in the fact that once a statistical unit has been allocated a latitude and longitude it can be coded to any geographic classification but, at the same time, remain independent of standard classifications. Records from surveys and censuses can be coded in this way, but in addition, records from administrative systems can also be geocoded. This greatly increases the value of administrative data for regional analysis as it allows the unambiguous allocation of records to areas.
In support of agencies and researchers wishing to take advantage of geocoding, Public Sector Mapping Agencies Australia Ltd released the Geocoded National Address File (G-NAF) in the first quarter of 2004. G-NAF uses the resources of a number of purpose-built address datasets to build a definitive address list for Australia that spatially codes these addresses. In addition, most of the major custodians of administrative data will be licensed users of G-NAF.
While geocoding provides significant flexibility in regional analysis, this flexibility has implications for the protection of individual or business confidentiality. For this reason the ABS will not use geocoding as the principal means of disseminating regional data. Instead, a new spatial unit known as the Mesh Block will be the basis of ABS dissemination of small area data, principally from the Census of Population and Housing, using G-NAF infrastructure as an enabling technology.
The application of flexible geography to enhance regional analysis will be significantly improved by the introduction of Mesh Blocks at the 2006 census. The ABS released Information Paper: Mesh Blocks (cat. no. 1209.0) in March 2004 seeking public comment on the Mesh Block initiative. The paper proposes that Mesh Blocks, about one-fifth the size of the current CD, will become the basic building block of all statistical, political and administrative geography in Australia. To maintain confidentiality, significant limits will exist on the availability of data for individual Mesh Blocks. Mesh Blocks can, however, be aggregated within the limits imposed by confidentiality to form customised regions best suited to the needs of the individual user or analysis. The ABS will support Mesh Blocks with a comprehensive geographical coding infrastructure based on the G-NAF.
The critical success factor for Mesh Blocks is the extent to which they are embraced not only by users of statistics, but also by those responsible for administrative and operational boundaries within their own jurisdictions. If Mesh Blocks are widely adopted within administrative systems, the potential utility of administrative data holdings to inform regional analysis is greatly enhanced. While Mesh Blocks will inevitably require some compromise and will not be perfect for all applications, the design features must make them as suitable as possible for the maximum range of applications.
Standard outputs from the 2006 census will be based on the current geography, that is CDs, but after the 2006 census, experimental data will be available based on Mesh Blocks. For the 2011 census, Mesh Blocks will become the standard building block of the ASGC and CDs will be replaced by a new output unit, similar in size to a CD, but designed specifically for data output. Only very basic census data, such as number of dwellings and population counts, would be published at the Mesh Block level, but the full range of census data will be available for combinations of Mesh Blocks. It is likely that statistics from other collections which are closely linked to location, such as the Agriculture Census, could also be aggregated to Mesh Blocks.
In the meantime the ASGC continues to be maintained and enhanced. A key issue at present is the current trend towards local government amalgamations in some states, which has the potential to cause a break in the statistical time series, particularly where such changes involve the splitting of existing local government areas. In such cases it is often not possible to accurately allocate historical data to the respective parts of a local government area.
Since the last special article on regional statistics in the 1999-2000 Annual Report there has been, as evidenced above, a number of significant advances in increasing the volume, and improving the availability of regional information.
The ABS views the finalisation of the Information Development Plan as being a key element in providing the framework for further developing the range and quality of regional statistics. Integral to the Information Development Plan will be the identification of new sources of regional information. By its nature regional statistics are data intensive, and increasingly administrative data of government agencies at all levels, as opposed to ABS data collections, will be the source of regional information. In that context the role of the ABS will be to develop partnerships with, and assist, other data suppliers to make their information available. The ABS developments in respect of area classifications, geocoding, and Mesh Blocks, and their adoption by other data suppliers, will be the key to ensuring a consistent and flexible approach to the coding and presentation of regional information. Similarly, the ABS views the National Regional Profile as an excellent vehicle for the delivery of regional information, from any source, in a consistent and readily accessible means.