4914.0.55.001 - Newsletter: Age Matters, Aug 2005  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/09/2005   
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1. Introduction

The cornerstone of statistics are the definitions and units used to define and describe items which are required for measurement. Without the accurate and systematic arrangement of data according to common properties, statistical output cannot be comparable.

This article provides an overview of ABS standards and classifications to assist users wishing to gain a broad understanding of standards and classifications, which, in turn, aids the interpretation and analysis of ABS statistics. It also aims to encourage the wider application of the ABS standards and classification systems by other producers of statistics. This would extend the volume of statistics that could be used in conjunction with the statistical output of the ABS and other bodies. Greater use of a common statistical framework throughout Australia not only increases efficiency, but also enriches the data that can be drawn upon by the community in decision-making.

This article provides an introduction to the concepts of statistical standards and classification used by the ABS. It outlines their purpose and importance and the ABS's legislative requirement, it describes the complex procedures and process used in their development and it outlines their location, structure and purpose of each of the main, currently used, ABS major classifications and the statistical units to which the classifications apply. Finally, NASU's interest in the promotion of ABS standards and classifications is restated.

2. The "Why" of standards and classifications

Statistical units, in general, are the units of observation in a statistical series, i.e. the basic entities about which data are recorded and which are then classified and aggregated to provide the official statistics.

As legislated in the Australian Bureau of Statistics Act 1975,the ABS is Australia’s official statistical agency. The Act in Part II, 6 describes the Functions of the Bureau and states that in addition to providing statistics on a wide range of economic and social matters it also has an important coordination function with respect to the statistical activities of other official bodies.

In particular the ABS is required:

" (c) to ensure co­ordination of the operations of official bodies in the collection, compilation and dissemination of statistics and related information, with particular regard to:
(i) ........;
(ii) the attainment of compatibility between, and the integration of, statistics compiled by official bodies; and
(iii) .......;"

This legislative requirement is incorporated in the ABS's Corporate Plan and is recognised in the following a value statement:

"We contribute to the development of international standards, and use them to produce conceptual frameworks and standards for Australian statistics. We follow sound methodologies and adopt the highest statistical standards and practices. We are also open about the quality of our statistics, so that users can better understand and interpret them."

- and as various objectives and strategies eg "publishing concepts, sources and methods publications so that users can understand the basis of our statistics " is a documented strategy in achieving the Corporate Plan objective 3, of " Informed and increased use of statistics."

3. The "How" of standards and classifications

The following describes the procedures and processes used in developing standards.

Procedures In Developing Standards

The development and use of statistical standards underpin statistical work in the ABS. The use of a comprehensive set of robust statistical standards is essential to provide an integrated and meaningful statistical picture of society. It makes it possible to draw all the data about a particular topic, variable or population together in a meaningful way from the full range of statistical data sources.

Statistical standards must:

  • facilitate collection and dissemination of high quality data in terms of accuracy, reliability, relevance and timeliness;
  • promote comparability internationally, across collections, across time, across agencies, within a given subject matter and where appropriate between subject matters;
  • be comprehensible to users and respondents to surveys;
  • provide clear, unambiguous definitions and a logical and coherent structure modelling aspects of the real world;
  • be practical to use in a range of data collection activities - including interviewer and self-enumerated surveys, and in administrative by-product data context;
  • be consistent, where appropriate, with other relevant endorsed economic or social standards and with other national or international standards such as the International Standard Classification of Occupations, the National Health Data Dictionary and the System of National Accounts (SNA).

The ABS is committed to the development, maintenance and use of standards for a range of concepts, units, variables and classifications in all its own population statistics work and to the active promotion of these standards in administrative and statistical data collection activities conducted outside the ABS. Standards are to be developed for all variables, classifications and underlying concepts (such as 'Usual residence' and statistical units), which are collected regularly in a range of different collections and/or are applicable to a range of subjects. Variables, classifications and concepts of this type are referred to as core items and the standard is referred to as a core standard.

Processes in the Development of Standards

The development of standards involves a wide range of stakeholders both within and outside the ABS including international agencies.

Population Statistics Standards section (PSS) of the ABS in Canberra has prime responsibility for Population and Social standards while the Economic Standards Section (ESS) and the Geography Section have prime responsibility for the development and documentation of Economic standards and Geography standards respectively. Responsibility for the development and review of standards is shared with the ABS's subject matter areas particularly where a high level of subject matter expertise is required (e.g. Income, Labour Force, etc). There are also occasions where it is appropriate to consult with other agencies beyond the ABS e.g. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in the preparation of standards.

To ensure that standards are used effectively in the full range of ABS collections, they must address all foreseeable operational considerations as well as be conceptually sound. The process of development is iterative and attempts to reconcile the requirements of the users of data with what is feasible and can actually be supplied by data providers within a national and international framework of comparability. Appropriate testing opportunities are identified and testing undertaken prior to wider implementation. The development of standards, therefore, is time consuming, and involves considerable resources.

Standards for entities other than variables are documented in a manner consistent with the standard format. These may include standards for statistical units (e.g. person, income unit), concepts underpinning a range of variables (e.g. dependency, usual residence, etc.), standards of an essentially technical or methodological nature (e.g. relative standard errors, the proposed address standard etc.), and standard classifications which may relate to several variables. Wherever this is appropriate, the ABS will aim to develop standards which are compatible with existing national and international standards and to influence the development and review of relevant international and national standards.

Implementation of Standards

Changes in standards, by their nature, have implications on data with respect to time series and other comparability issues. These changes are called "breaks in series" and their impact is considered as part of the initial development proposal. Therefore once a revised standard has been endorsed they are implemented as soon as is practicable in statistical collections and output and applied at the commencement of the next reference period.

Newly endorsed standards are widely circulated within the ABS staff and databases and to the ABS website as soon as is practicable. Any significant changes made to standards as part of routine maintenance are also be circulated.

4. The "Where and What" of standards and classifications

The standards and definitions that are used can be found in the various "Explanatory Notes" and in some case "Glossaries" that are either published with ABS data releases or in the case of electronic data cubes or spreadsheet releases are clearly referred to in the major data release.

Additionally, the ABS publishes various classifications and these can be found in Part 12 of Group 1 - General, in the Catalogue of Publications and Products (cat.no.1101.0 ).

This edition of Age Matters features, in New data releases, descriptions of ABS standards and classifications that have recently been released.

5. NASU's stake in standards and classifications

NASU's particular interest in standards and classifications is focussed on improving the level of information available for persons aged over 65 in ABS collections and ensuring that this age group are not considered to be an homogenous group. For example, people aged 65 to 74 have different housing arrangements, health and care issues and ability to participate in the community to those of people aged 85 and over.

There are a number of issues impacting on the capture of data from the population aged 65 and over including:
  • non enumeration of special dwellings;
  • age limits applied to the scope of collections;
  • collection instruments appropriate to the aged; and
  • output standards for delivering survey results based on international standard criteria for classifying age: group size, group boundaries and age ranges.

In order to further investigate the issues outlined above, in 2006 NASU will undertake a review of the Household Survey program with respect to its ability to meet the priority area of increasing data availability on older people.