Budget 2015: ABS gets AU$250 million for IT overhaul

After months of uncertainty, the Australian government has committed AU$250 million to help bail the Australian Bureau of Statistics out of its legacy IT woes.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) will receive AU$250 million in funding over the next five years in order to upgrade its legacy IT systems as part of this year's federal Budget.

The ABS has been warning for a number of years that its legacy systems are becoming costly, threatening its ability to undertake its task of collecting information about Australia and, in particular, the Census every five years.

ABS CIO Patrick Hadly told ZDNet in early 2014 that there was a focus on doing more with less in IT, while the agency attempted to overhaul its IT systems while funding was tight.

An ABS report found that the IT infrastructure was "highly vulnerable to failure and error", with some critical infrastructure containing components over 30 years old. The agency maintains over 500 systems, and one in three applications used by the agency are classified as unreliable, while one in six are no longer supported by the vendor.

The agency already has some funding for IT set aside: In August last year, the ABS allocated AU$58.9 million in the agency's budget for technology services over the next 12 months, in a time when the agency is being forced to reduce its expenditure by AU$50 million over the next three years as part of budget cuts from the federal government.

Earlier this year, it was reported that the ABS was considering taking the Census every 10 years instead as the agency focused on fixing IT, and called on the government to make additional investments in the ABS.

"Government investment in the ABS' critical statistical infrastructure would enable the ABS to better manage quality risks and make better statistical use of information available to governments and the community. This will position us to better deliver the information that Australia needs now and into the future," Australian statistician David Kallisch said at the time.

Ahead of the Budget to be announced on Tuesday night, Treasurer Joe Hockey and Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasurer Kelly O'Dwyer revealed on Thursday plans to fund the agency with AU$250 million over five years for "urgent upgrades to its ICT systems".

"This significant government investment will provide the infrastructure required by the ABS to continue delivering timely and quality economic, environmental, demographic, and social statistics for Australia," Hockey said in a statement.

Kallisch said on Thursday that the investment is the largest made in the ABS in its 110-year history.

"We welcome the confidence of government in the ABS in making this significant investment to improve our capability and responsiveness, ensure continued delivery of trusted, world-class statistics, and provide infrastructure required to drive innovation," he said in a statement.

"This investment will also deliver ongoing savings in the long term, and reduce red tape for households and businesses that provide information to the ABS."

The ABS had not responded to a request for further comment at the time of writing.

Kallisch said the 2016 Census will be "predominantly digital", with an online-first approach to Australians filling out their Census forms.

"The ABS will continue to look for opportunities to integrate Census data with other data sets to increase the range of insights provided and ensure the Census delivers maximum benefit to governments and the community," he said.

"We will progress innovations to transform our social and economic statistics over coming years to take advantage of 21st-century opportunities such as advances in technology, big data, and use of administrative data for statistical and research purposes."

Hockey confirmed that the ABS is "on track" for the 2016 Census, and that the funding would cover a new ABS Survey Management Centre of Excellence in Geelong, and would also allow the ABS to explore new sources of revenue from commercial users of its data. The government said free access to data and statistics would still be made available through the ABS website.

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