Every stat tells a story.

AWS Public Sector Summit

Teresa Dickinson PSM,  
Deputy Australian Statistician
Wednesday 31 August 2022
Address to the AWS Public Sector Summit, Canberra

Thank you Max, and good morning everyone. I am delighted to speak to you today – terrified – but delighted, because I have a great story to tell.

I begin by also acknowledging that we are on Ngunnawal country and I pay my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the audience and watching online.

I invite you to cast your minds back – how many of you remember what you were doing 386 days ago? I am guessing most of you would have no idea.

So, if I were point out it was 10 August 2021 would you remember now?

What if I added (and you can see where I’m going with this) that 10 August 2021 was the day of Australia’s 18th Census.

Even with that context, many of you would probably still struggle to remember what you were actually doing on a particular day over a year ago.

For the Australians in the audience, one in three of you would have been completing your Census sometime that day. And many you would have completed it before Census night.

So now do you remember jumping online or filling in one of these forms? And, if you did fill in a paper form all I can say is REALLY?! Are you at the right event?

If you don’t really remember completing your Census then that’s fantastic, because we worked hard with our key collaborators, notably PwC and AWS in the digital space, to successfully deliver a Census that was easy, quick and secure.

Today I focus on our work with AWS. They were a key part of Australia’s Census story, and we could not have done it without them.

A little bit about the Census. It’s big. We say it’s the biggest peacetime event in Australia.

At peak time, the Census employs over 30,000 staff. A big shout out to those who worked on the Census – there’s a number of you here today.

The Census represents half a billion dollars of taxpayer investment – but delivers six times that of value to the economy. That’s a good return on investment, but only if we get it right.

So what happened? How did we get it right with the help of AWS?

In 2017, ABS delivered the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey. It was our first real foray into using cloud services. With AWS, we built an online form in a cloud platform for Australians overseas to use. In fact, I used it as I was living in New Zealand at the time. During this process, ABS experienced, firsthand, the scale and security available in cloud technology.

So, for the 2021 Census Digital Service, the ABS felt comfortable choosing a cloud-based solution, despite there being very few Australian Government cloud-based services at the time we went to market.

In the three years leading up to the Census, we worked collaboratively with AWS and PwC to bring our vision to life and build a Census digital solution that was secure, innovative and could deliver high performance at scale to meet expected Census night peaks.

The Census Digital Service was not only for the online form. It also included the Census website, a content management system and self-service facilities such as ‘not-at-home’ reporting, request a new Census number and paper form requests.

And we collaborated with the Australian Cyber Security Centre and specialist cyber security firms to provide a range of security assessment and uplift activities and to develop a cyber security strategy. We are very thankful for their assistance.

Our digital preparations culminated in the ABS performing the largest denial of service test ever conducted in Australia. AWS facilitated the test, and we all learned a lot about mounting a test of this size.

Craig Lindenmayer, our ABS Cyber Security Specialist, is here today and you can find out more about this work from Craig during the workshops after lunch.

Turning to the relationship we had with AWS as we built the Census. There were four key characteristics that stood out:

  • The shared vision and passion we have in the value and importance of the Census to Australia and therefore a genuine desire to see it succeed.
  • Trust. AWS built trust with us very quickly – not only that they could deliver the technical solution, but that they had our backs.
  • Great communication at all levels so we knew what was happening. What was going well, and what was proving difficult.
  • A problem-solving mindset. Of course, in this sort of large, complex, high stakes build things don’t always go smoothly. On numerous occasions AWS designed and brokered solutions to problems with, and on behalf of, the ABS and – most often, of course, in conjunction with PwC.

AWS and other suppliers were with us in ABS House on Census night. We really felt very much like - and functioned as - one team at the pointy end of the Census. We were all pleased that Census night was uneventful to the point of being a bit boring.

I said at the beginning that we designed the Census to be easy to use. A measure of our success was the very significant positive feedback received from the public. Many were effusive about how easy the form was to navigate – even from a phone or a Tesla.

Moreover, the Digital Service was designed to support a range of assistive technologies, receiving an award for being inclusive.

Now, I’m a numbers person, so here are a few metrics. By the end of Census night, we saw 52 per cent of households complete the form online, which was well above forecast.

The Digital Service received almost 7.7 million online forms in total – that’s just under 80 per cent of returns – and there were more than 18 million visits to the Census website.

The Digital Service scaled to enable 2.8 million households to submit forms in a 24‑hour period on Census Day.

The Service peaked with 142 forms submitted per second at 8:05pm on Census night. It performed seamlessly with no unscheduled downtime.

Overall, we achieved a 96.1 per cent response rate for the Census – above our target. And that’s my favourite number about the Census!

In short, the 2021 Census Digital Service set a new benchmark for digital delivery in government.

Every Census is important, but the 2021 Census will be remembered for the information it has provided on how we lived and worked during the pandemic – with this Census being taken when over half the population of Australia was in lockdown.

The first release of 2021 Census data in June showed Australia’s population had grown to 25.4 million people and that we are increasingly culturally diverse. For the first time, we asked a question on long term health conditions and we’ve found that more than 8 million Australians have one or more long term health conditions like asthma or arthritis.

The second release of 2021 Census data will occur on 12 October, and it will provide insights on topics including employment, journey to work and occupation. All of these will have been affected by the pandemic.

The Census was a true team effort and I thank AWS for being such a vital and valuable member of the 2021 Census team.

But most of all, I thank you for providing your data 386 days ago or thereabouts. Remember, your Census data informs decisions that support you, your family, your community and makes our Country better.

Thank you.  

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