Supporting Analysis of The Life Course

Life Course Centre Data for Policy Summit: Keynote address

Dr David Gruen AO
Australian Statistician 
Tuesday 15 August 2023


Having lived in the Canberra region on and off for much of my life, I’ve grown to appreciate its many attractions. I take this opportunity to thank the Traditional Custodians of this land who have cared for it over millennia. I pay my respects to their Elders and acknowledge members of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community attending today.

Thank you for the opportunity to give an opening address at the 2023 Life Course Centre Data for Policy Summit.

Given the topic of the Policy Summit, I thought I would talk about a new body of work at the ABS: the Life Course Data Initiative. I will also reflect on current initiatives to improve both the value of integrated data assets and access to them for researchers and policy makers. I also have an announcement to make concerning one of the ABS’ integrated data assets!

The Life Course Data Initiative

In the May 2023 Budget, the government announced a $200 million package to target entrenched community disadvantage with a focus on intergenerational disadvantage and improving child and family wellbeing. This initiative is being led by Commonwealth Treasury and the Department of Social Services.

As part of the package, the ABS received $16.4 million over four years for a ‘Life Course Data Initiative’ to improve understanding of how communities experience disadvantage, including through longitudinal data. Many Australians continue to face disadvantage and this disadvantage is often concentrated in specific communities.

Communities facing disadvantage are keen to drive change but are hampered by a lack of relevant, available data. It is difficult to obtain a clear, evidence-based understanding of what is happening in many of these communities. Some headway has been made with the Stronger Places Stronger People initiative stewarded by the Department of Social Services. This initiative establishes data protocols to enable 10 communities, including Bourke in NSW, Logan in Queensland and Mildura in Victoria, to have access to both quantitative and qualitative data about their communities. However, difficulties remain in being able to access suitable data across areas such as health, education, employment and security. This difficulty was highlighted, for example, by the Interim Economic Inclusion Advisory Committee in their 2023-24 report (see recommendations 13, 16, 29 and 35).

While survey data, including from longitudinal surveys, can provide important insights, the sample size often precludes generating results at the community level. Accessing administrative data can overcome some of these limitations, without the need to burden respondents to fill in yet another survey.

The Life Course Data Asset initiative will connect administrative datasets into a linked longitudinal data asset to support evidence-based policy making at the community level. Linking data across different subject-matter areas and levels of government will enable more comprehensive analysis of the characteristics, programs and service interactions of individuals, households and families which serve as either protective or risk factors for those who experience disadvantage over time.

This work formally commenced on 1 July and, over coming months, the ABS will be designing the pilot Life Course Data Asset. This will include establishing governance arrangements and setting up discussions with interested parties.

The ABS will engage with States and Territories over the next few months to develop a set of criteria for the pilot. Initially, the pilot will involve a partnership between the ABS and a single State. Designing the pilot in this way will enable us to focus resources on significantly deepening the data available to support a comprehensive understanding of childhood in Australia. This approach will establish frameworks and processes for expanding the asset to all State and Territory jurisdictions in the future.

The Life Course Data Asset will seek to include datasets across many aspects of people’s lives including health, education, employment, security, and housing. Figure 1 below gives a sense of the data assets that are potentially in scope for the Life Course Data Asset, and which level of government holds them. It illustrates the potential breadth of data relevant to understanding outcomes across the life course. The aim is to deliver the capacity to undertake detailed longitudinal analysis over the life course and thereby to support targeted investment decisions by Government, while also informing local priorities.

Figure 1: Provides a schematic of the potential datasets that will be in scope for the Life Course Data Asset

This figure provides a schematic of the potential datasets that will be in scope for the Life Course Data Asset

Figure 1: Provides a schematic of the potential datasets that will be in scope for the Life Course Data Asset

This figure provides an overview of the proposed Life Course Data Asset, which will be a person-based asset that will link data across domains and levels of government to facilitate analysis of outcomes across the life course within the family, household and broader community context. Please note the data are indicative only and provides an illustrate example of the potential breadth of data relevant to understanding outcomes across the life course. Identifiable sources may not be available for all topics.

The success of the Life Course Data Asset is dependent on the acquisition and linkage of administrative data held by the relevant jurisdictions, together with an expansion of Commonwealth data sets. Broad support from all jurisdictions will be important to build the longer-term data asset as many of the interactions Australians have with government services are with programs delivered at either the state/territory or local government level. This includes health and education, but also housing, transport, childcare and energy usage.

The Life Course Data Asset will extend the existing Multi-Agency Data Integration Project (MADIP) and complement the development of other domain-specific data assets, including the National Disability Data Asset and the Vocational National Data Asset (VNDA).

Allow me a short detour on the history of MADIP. As many people attending this conference would know, MADIP is the large person-level integrated data asset hosted by the ABS. MADIP was first developed in 2015 and given its name ‘Multi-Agency Data Integration Project’ which describes the process that established the data asset, but not the asset itself! While the name MADIP has undoubtedly served that purpose, the time has come to give it a name that describes the nature of the integrated data asset itself.

I am taking the opportunity of this opening address to announce a change of name. MADIP is being renamed PLIDA (pronounced PLY – DAH): “person-level integrated data asset”. This change of name will occur gradually – the documentation that supports MADIP will still be badged MADIP and will be updated gradually to recognise the new name.

Improving the value of and access to integrated datasets

The statistical landscape is changing rapidly in Australia. Investment in the safe and secure linkage of existing administrative data is becoming increasingly important to provide the evidence base for policy, community-level insights, and program evaluation capability.

When thinking about improving integrated assets, the ABS considers what new datasets could be added, how often to update the integrated datasets with new data, and how we can fill gaps in populations that are not currently well represented. There are a range of other data sources that could be integrated to further enhance the value of ABS’ integrated data assets. Which of these datasets are integrated with PLIDA (MADIP) is driven by user/researcher demand, and generally occurs on a cost recovery basis.

There is large demand for state and territory data to be integrated with PLIDA (MADIP). Along with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, the ABS is developing the Australian National Data Integration Infrastructure (ANDII) to enable two-way data sharing between the Commonwealth and State and Territory jurisdictions. The first integrated data asset to be hosted on the ANDII will be the National Disability Data Asset. In parallel, we are exploring opportunities to integrate jurisdictional health services data, including hospitals data, with PLIDA (MADIP) to support a range of projects.

Over recent years, the ABS has enhanced the datasets available to researchers, the analytical tools and software available for analysing the data and the infrastructure used to access the data, the ABS DataLab. The ABS DataLab now sits in the Cloud, and so benefits from the security and processing power of a cloud platform. Researchers can now use a range of analytical software, including R, SAS, Stata and Python.

Throughout 2023-24, the ABS will be focused on improving the usability of PLIDA data for researchers. PLIDA data is now widely used across government and academia, but users face some common challenges. The ABS is developing some new PLIDA modules to assist users to identify households and families, and to more straightforwardly identify populations of interest.

We will also make what we have called “quality of life” improvements – restructuring and standardising PLIDA files to make them easier for researchers to use.

The richness of datasets now available in the ABS DataLab has significant value for academic research. With appropriate safeguards in place, we are now piloting access for international academic researchers by partnering, in the first instance, with the OECD and with Professor Greg Kaplan at the University of Chicago.

By providing international access to what are now high-quality data assets (with appropriate safeguards), there is the prospect that more international researchers will be attracted to working on Australian policy issues using Australian data. This will help generate new insights on Australia’s policy challenges – those relevant to the life course and others.[1]


It is an exciting time to be involved in studying the life course. We at the ABS are keen to play our part improving the quality, range of data available, and ease of access for researchers in this important area of analysis.

Thank you.


[1] In the academic discipline I know best – economics – it is hard for academics to get research on Australian economic issues published in the top international journals. Making Australian data available to international researchers should generate more interest in Australian policy issues that can be tackled using these data. In turn, this should help to improve international recognition of academic work conducted using Australian data.

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