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FEATURE ARTICLE: 100 YEARS OF STATISTICS IN AUSTRALIA (footnote 1)
GRAPH 1. INDUSTRY SHARES OF GDP
The availability of long time series of statistics make it possible for historians and social commentators to look at how our nation has changed over time.
WHAT HAS NOT CHANGED FOR THE ABS OVER THE LAST 100 YEARS?
As part of our centenary year, we have been reviewing our history. A number of important things have remained largely the same over that time.
The core purpose of the ABS has not changed. It continues to be charged with providing a relevant and trusted statistical service to governments and the community at large.
Another constant is the influence of core values on how the ABS works. These values have remained constant over the years. In short they are relevance, integrity, professionalism, equality of access to ABS information, and protection of the confidentiality of information provided to the Bureau by both individuals and organisations.
Another constant over 100 years has been the willingness to adopt new technology and methods to improve the way we do things. We recognise that innovation is essential if we are to move forward, and we are not shy about doing that. We are generally regarded as being a world leader in the application of technology and statistical methods.
WHAT HAS CHANGED FOR THE ABS?
Although the ABS’s core purpose has not changed, many other things have. The biggest changes are in the type of outputs we produce, the way we produce them and the way we deliver statistics to users.
At the start of the life of the Bureau, the core statistics were based on the Population Census, birth, death and marriage registrars, customs records, other administrative systems and the occasional non-random sample survey.
When you look at some of today’s most important statistics you might be suprised at how they have changed since those early days:
Another big change has been the introduction of sample surveys as a valid alternative to the traditional census approach. Surveys of business relating to stocks (inventories), capital expenditure and labour turnover were conducted from 1947.
The way we produce statistics has also changed considerably with the advent of technology. No more slide rules or mechanical calculators and soon no mainframe computer!
The Population Census provides a good example of how the processing of statistics has changed. Hand processing was largely used in 1911. Four million records were involved. Not surprisingly, it took 3 years and a small army to produce the first results. Hollerith machines for sorting and tabulating were deployed for the following Census, and versions of this equipment used for subsequent censuses up until 1961. This reduced the cost of processing the Census as well as improving the timeliness and accuracy. Mainframe computers were first introduced in 1966 and improved technology has been used in each subsequent Census to improve performance. We have resisted the temptation to stand still. For example, we expect to process the 2006 Census in less time than in 2001. That’s after an estimated 8 percent increase in population, and therefore the number of census forms to process.
There has also been a dramatic change in the way we disseminate statistics. In the early days, there was complete reliance on paper publications, a release format which has only in the past 25 years begun to give way to electronic dissemination including CD-Roms in the mid-1980s and the Internet since the mid 1990s.
Now to the future.
THE ABS AS A STATISTICAL PROVIDER
The core role for the ABS will continue to be to provide the most appropriate sets of statistics that are fit for purpose. But the mix will change and ABS will need to keep up with that demand.
It would be foolhardy to try to predict the changes in statistical themes in the future except to say they are likely to be substantial. If you look back 15 years, the ABS did not produce environment statistics, information technology statistics, culture and leisure statistics or many statistics about indigenous people except for a few Population Census based data items.
It is not just a matter of collecting statistics on a particular topic. For them to be meaningful, it is necessary to work closely with the users, especially the policy analysts, to better understand the underlying issues. We like to know the problem before we help with a solution.
There will be changes in the way the ABS collects data. Whilst Censuses and sample surveys will continue to be the main source for official statistics, better technology has meant data from administrative systems are making something of a comeback as a source for official statistics.
What is increasingly possible is the ability to link data sets to make them much richer for statistical purposes. Our sister agencies in many other countries have already started down this path. We have been more cautious.
There are privacy issues that have to be carefully managed. We would not do anything that would threaten the confidentiality of those that provided the data.
Our strategy for moving forward in this arena is to reassure the public of our record at respecting their confidentiality interests while at the same time presenting the benefits of such developments.
Such changes may not be easy in an Australian context but have the potential to provide a statistical catalyst to research and development in important areas of our lives such as health.
The other big change in data collection will be the use of the internet. Over the last 20 years, technology has changed the way in which data is collected and captured. This will continue in the future. As one example, an e-form is being designed for the 2006 Population Census. Take up rate is expected to be about 10% but this will surely increase over time.
Also, more and more businesses are interested in reporting by internet especially if statistical returns can be automatically extracted from their own accounting systems. Some countries are examining these possibilities aggressively and we will watch these developments with interest.
Looking at statistical outputs, it is only 10 years since the ABS first established its web site. Now, apart from information provided through the media, it is how most statistical users obtain ABS statistics. Our web site use is currently about 50 million page views per year. This trend will continue with the rapid increase in the demand for statistics.
More generally, our more sophisticated users are looking for improved access to more detailed data research and policy analysis purposes. Whilst fully understanding this need and trying to find ways to support it, the ABS must not do anything that would compromise the trust and confidence of respondents to our surveys.
There is another important trend. Increasingly, we find that our users want to compare statistics for Australia with those of other countries. This gives a context for Australian figures. Differences can be very illuminating in evaluating the effectiveness of current policy or assessing alternative policy options. This can only be done if you are comparing like with like. This is one of the reasons that the ABS is an active contributor to international statistics, particularly on the development of international standards. We are respected in these fora because we treat each issue on its statistical merit.
These are just a few of our future challenges but it gives a feel for how some aspects of official statistics might change.
THE ABS AS A STATISTICAL LEADER
According to its legislation, the ABS has a responsibility for the coordination of official statistics. Since 1975, the ABS has introduced a range of programs to complement and add value to the statistical activities of other agencies. However, none of these programs proved to be enduring.
Recently, a range of exciting opportunities have emerged which will enable us to realise the potential of obligations articulated in our legislation.
The world of statistics is changing and we are moving towards a national statistical system where the ABS is only one of the providers of statistics albeit a very important provider.
A prime reason for the increase in providers of statistics is the advent of administrative data in digital form. Whereas in the past, the ABS would normally be expected to produce official statistics based on those systems, this is no longer the case - the administering agencies are often best placed to compile the statistics themselves, but the ABS has an important role to play to ensure these statistics are of good quality. These other providers of statistical services are looking for leadership, a role which the ABS is keen to provide.
There are two main reasons why there is demand for increased leadership:
The ABS is looking at a range of new initiatives to improve Australia’s statistical environment. One of the most important is the ABS’ National Data Network (NDN) initiative. The network is a distributed library of data holdings relevant to policy analysis and research. These data holdings remain held and controlled by their custodian organisations. The NDN is a central hub hosted by the ABS for searching, acquiring and sharing statistical information.
The NDN could revolutionise the way statistics are published in Australia and will gradually expand as new organisations connect to it and add their repositories of data. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare is already online and the Queensland government’s Office of Economic and Statistical Research is expected to be next. The Tasmanian government is also keen to participate in the project. Whilst data is held by each custodian, the National Data Network provides a complete catalogue of available data sources to allow users to easily search for, and access data holdings which have been published. In effect, it will provide a portal to official statistics.
MORE INFORMATION ON ABS HISTORY
To commemorate its centenary, the ABS has produced a publication of over 320 pages, describing its history throughout the century. Informing a Nation: the Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics was released on 31 October 2005.
Informing a Nation is a popular history of the ABS and its predecessor, the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. It covers the period from 1905 to the present day. The publication is organised thematically and includes chapters on subject areas such as economic statistics, the census, social statistics, prices, methodology, technology, international relations, clients and dissemination, and the staff of the ABS. As well as the written history, the publication includes many images of the work of the ABS and its staff over the last century.
Reviewing the ABS in its centenary year, it has a fine history and has served Australia well. It plays a vital role in an Australian democracy - not just because it provides information which serves as a mirror on society - but because that information is trusted.
This trust is important to governments. Because of this trust, discussions can focus on what the statistics mean for policy rather than on the integrity of the statistics themselves.
The Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was established in 1905 as one of the pillars of democracy. Today the Australian Bureau of Statistics continues that role and so much more. The Bureau has retained the core values of those early years: relevance, integrity, professionalism, confidentiality and access for all.
Our 100 years of history has provided a fine foundation on which to stand as we address the challenges of the future. There must be changes if we are to remain relevant and provide value for the money that is appropriated to us. But more than anything else we have to be careful that we do not lose trust - it is our comparative advantage. If we lose trust, we risk becoming just another information provider. After 100 years of service to help build the nation, that would be a great loss to Australia.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2002, A century of population change in Australia ABS website viewed 3 November 2005. <https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/94713ad445ff1425ca25682000192af2/0b82c2f2654c3694ca2569de002139d9!OpenDocument>
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005a, Australian Demographic Statistics, cat. no. 3101.0, ABS, Canberra. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005b, Australian System of National Accounts, cat. no. 5204.0, ABS, Canberra.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005c, Informing a Nation: The Evolution of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, cat. no. 1382.0, ABS, Canberra.
Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2005d, 100 Years of Change in Australian Industry ABS website viewed 3 November 2005.
Trewin, D. 2005 “Truth, Damned Truth and Statistics” National Press Club Telstra Address by Dennis Trewin, The Australian Statistician, March 9 2005. <https://www.abs.gov.au/websitedbs/d3310114.nsf/4a256353001af3ed4b2562bb00121564/7917d5ad18b592efca256fbf0079ac6c!OpenDocument>
1 This article is largely based on “Truth, Damned Truth and Statistics” National Press Club Telstra Address by Dennis Trewin, The Australian Statistician, March 9 2005. back
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