CEDA 2015 Queensland Economic Development Forum

David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician

Brisbane, 6 August 2015


Good morning, I would firstly like to acknowledge the Turrbul people, the traditional owners of the land where we gather today, and pay my respect to Elders past and present and to emerging community leaders. I also acknowledge the important role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and the communities with which we work.

In my remarks this morning, as the Australian Statistician, and head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, I will of course be speaking from the context of the role that the ABS plays in delivering quality, timely information every day.

The range and quantity of statistics produced by the ABS has increased enormously over the years. In 2014-15, the ABS released 650 statistical products, there were 15.2 million visits to the ABS website and 2.7 million downloads of ABS data.

The ABS understands the importance of these national statistics and we need to have a zero risk approach to the quality of our main economic indicators and key population statistics that are crucial to many important choices and decisions.

Over the past fifteen years the Australian population has grown by about 25%, the economy (as measured by GDP volumes) by 60% and Commonwealth Government outlays, in real terms, by around 90%. So by any measure the Statistician’s job is getting bigger.

And over the same period, with constrained resources, the number of ABS staff has fallen by almost 25%. These figures provide some indication of the challenge the ABS has faced to measure a dynamic economic and social environment, and the greater efficiency of our processes.

The importance of information is increasingly being recognised, across government and elsewhere. In recognition of today’s changing information environment and the needs of government, business and community, the Australian Government will invest $250 million over five years in the ABS for critically urgent upgrades to our business processes and ICT systems.

This investment will reduce our costs, help manage some quality risks in our processes, and position the ABS to improve the range of potential statistics the ABS is able to provide in the future.

Information as part of Australia’s key national infrastructure

The information resource and expertise of the ABS is a central part of Australia’s key infrastructure that, if used wisely, can contribute to a more informed community, good decisions, growth and productivity enhancements, and the efficient operation of markets.

I cannot think of a major decision made in Australia without reference to an ABS statistic. ABS statistical products form the bedrock for economic analysis and decision making across both the private and public sectors in this country.

To provide some very concrete examples of the importance of this ABS information:

  • Our releases on production, consumption and income, together with key labour market indicators, prices, business conditions, imports/exports and foreign capital movements are crucial to a comprehensive understanding of our economy and its growth path.
  • These are obviously key inputs to the fiscal and monetary policy settings, and the economic forecasts made by Treasury, RBA, IMF, OECD and anyone else either required or game enough to publish future predictions.
  • Businesses rely on ABS data on the macro economy, and in many instances regional, industry and demographic information to make more informed judgments around establishing or expanding their operations or just seeking to better understand local markets.
  • Households and the broader community get key insights into the property market, retail trade, the prices of key consumer goods and services, as well as key socio-economic developments across the community.
  • ABS data is also used to assess and evaluate policy initiatives across all levels of government.

More effective use of other information

While the ABS is certainly a very large information provider, and is Australia’s national statistical office, we are not alone in the critical task of collecting and reporting quality information.

Increasingly, governments around the world are recognising the value of the data that they collect in the normal course of governments doing what governments do.

At the ABS we already make safe use of some of this government data in compiling key national statistics. For example, we use information from our State and Territory Registrars of Births, Deaths and Marriages and information from Immigration’s passenger cards to derive key population numbers. Information from Customs is an integral part of our national accounts, our key import/export numbers and balance of payments.

To date, ABS has made relatively modest use of this government information.

Integrated data – the next frontier

Data integration is a key technique used by key statistical agencies around the world, and by many governments and researchers, to safely bring together, for example, information from a range of government administrative data sets potentially also with survey and/or Census data.

It draws upon technological and methodological advances. Identifying information is kept separate and safe from the sensitive content information. Improvements in computing power and analytical techniques enable us to more easily manage very large composite data sets.

Key insights emerge in this environment.

While some information is already available in many areas of major public policy, I would suggest that more effective use of our existing information infrastructure has the potential to provide key insights around such issues as:

  • Industry restructuring and regional development
  • Productivity and job opportunities
  • Generational disadvantage and income mobility
  • The effectiveness of government programs.

The ABS is able to generate greater value from safe use of the data we have. This will need to draw upon good partnerships with other data providers across the Australian community.

Corporate data – retail scanner data and beyond

It is not only government information where there are major opportunities to discover new insights in a cost-effective manner.

The ABS already makes extensive use of retail scanner data to efficiently keep track of food, automotive fuel, clothing, tools and equipment and pharmaceutical prices. Rather than using people to walk the aisles of retail businesses with clip boards and pens, as was previously the case, we now receive up to date price information from these retailers in an electronic form, that contributes to about a quarter of our CPI.

The ABS has been collaborating with Statistics Netherlands, who have considerable experience using this retail scanner data for their CPI, to refine our approach in this area.

This is a promising start, but we do see considerably greater potential to receive and use more information direct from the corporate sector, reduce the costs to businesses and households of a number of key ABS collections and improve the quality and timeliness of our key estimates.

We recognise there are untapped opportunities to draw insights from commercial data that can, for example, contribute to more regular updating of our understanding of household expenditure patterns.

We need to be open to and actively seek partnerships within the business community to access and add value to the wealth of information which is potentially available.

The ABS is well placed to properly manage this data sourced from the commercial sector. We have expertise in managing sensitive information and safeguards for reporting this information in an aggregated manner that does not jeopardise individual or corporate interests.

I would welcome the support of the business community in this endeavour.

In conclusion, the challenge of innovation …

We are in the information age, there are new opportunities, there are new needs, and there are increased expectations.

The ABS has the capability to pursue greater improvements to what it does and how it works. This rate of innovation needs to accelerate, in order to seize the new information opportunities which are emerging; and to help answer the emerging policy questions and dilemmas facing governments, business and the wider community.

Thank you.

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