Panellist UQ Big (Data for Change) Forum

Parliament House, Canberra, 16 September 2015

David W. Kalisch, Australian Statistician

Good afternoon. I would like to thank the organisers for the opportunity to participate in this important forum.

I would like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people, the traditional owners of the land we are meeting on today and pay my respect to their elders, past, present and future.

The ABS has provided statistics to inform all key decisions for over 100 years. The transformation program that the ABS is currently undertaking will ensure that we are even better able to provide information to address the policy conundrums of the future.

We are in the information age, and there are new opportunities, new needs, and increased expectations. A critical part of the ABS transformation program is to produce value-for-money ‘statistical solutions’ that best meet the needs of decision makers. Overall, the ABS wants to increase the use of data and has played an important role in working with partners to support the opening up of data beyond official statistics.

The ABS has a long track record of effectively working with big data. The Australian Census is a dataset covering the entire population, and in 2016, the predominately digital Census will be one of the world’s most comprehensive with 45 topics covering 24 million people. Not only does it provide information for very small groups of people and communities, the Australian Census Longitudinal Dataset extends this further, by creating an accurate view of the changing lives of Australians.

Working with high volume public data is something that the ABS has considerable experience with. Our official population estimates use millions of records each year to determine net overseas migration, and our economic statistics have been using customs data for more than a hundred years.

There are four main changes on our horizon:

1. We are looking to increase our use of available public and private sector data. We are utilising retail scanner data within the Consumer Price Index and have replaced our traditional reliance on field officers for a quarter of the items priced in the index.

But this is just the beginning. Next steps could be to use retail data for household expenditure statistics – maybe to produce small area information? Or location data could enable us to measure how the population is distributed across Australia on a dynamic basis, rather than just a single point of time? Or better measure freight transport?

2. Bringing together multiple large datasets will provide insights into the economy and society that were never before possible.

    Very big data can be created through integrating large administrative datasets, and integrating data with the Census

    The ABS is also providing insights into business activity through integrating ABS business survey information with tax data and information from government programs.

3. As part of the historic refresh of our statistical systems, we are reconsidering our approach to collecting economic and people statistics. We are investigating how to reconfigure our entire household and business survey program to focus on the information dimensions that need to be collected and to put in place more effective and efficient approaches.

4. However, this in itself is not enough, and the ABS will have to improve access to micro-data. Micro-data offers enormous analytical opportunities but any access arrangements must be navigated with care in order to respect the confidentiality and privacy expectations of our citizens and data providers. We intend to find the right balance between realising the potential of data and respecting the legitimate privacy concerns of the community.

It is essential that Australia leverages big data effectively to best equip it to answer the complex social and economic policy questions of the 21st Century.

The ABS is well placed to be a major contributor in delivering these statistical solutions.

We have experience working with very large datasets, we have the legislation and policy safeguards to ensure that the confidentiality of data is maintained, we have the methodological experience and, importantly, the community trusts us and we respect that trust.

The ABS is looking forward to working with governments, business, researchers and the community to better utilise big data in safe and effective ways in order to provide new insights for decision making.


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