ABS armed with sufficient funds to tackle statistical transformation

Over the next five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics will use the funding it received from the 2015 federal budget to transform its statistical infrastructure.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has its sights set on finally being able make some real progress in its transformation program thanks to the Australian government's recent commitment to invest AU$250 million into the agency over the next five years.

Speaking to ZDNet at the Technology in Government Summit, ABS CIO Patrick Hadley said the additional funding will be used as part of a broader transformation the agency is currently undergoing, something that was previously labelled as the ABS 2017 program, and now has been rebadged to the statistical business transformation program (SBTP).

Hadley said having the investment will mean the agency will be able to focus specifically on overhauling its statistical infrastructure, including systems and business processes that are engaged in collecting, processing, analysing, and disseminating data. He admitted there are some applications in use that are at least 30 years old.

"It's not an IT refresh; it's a fundamental transformation of statistical processes, systems, and infrastructure," he said.

He added one of the key components of the SBTP will be to update its ageing IT environment, which is "siloed, somewhat old, have fragile applications, products, and services, and they was developed some time ago".

"One of the key endeavours -- and we have a multiplicity of those applications which support surveys and products -- is to develop enterprise capabilities around the way we collect and acquire data, the way we process it, and the way we disseminate it and provide those enterprise capabilities that can be applied to any line of business," he said.

The funding will also be go towards helping the agency further along the process of its Next-Gen Desktop program, which has just commenced and due to be completed by December. According to Hadley, it will see the agency move to a thin client working environment to support the use of laptops and move away from desktops.

"It's a very ambitious project for ABS because not only are we going to virtualise all of our desktop applications and reduce support costs, but we've introduced a whole range of functionality; most recently Skype for Business, which allow people to video conference from anywhere," he said.

Hadley said while the funding from the federal government will be a big help, the ABS has already made some progress through self-funding. In August last year, the ABS allocated AU$58.9 million in its budget for technology services, during 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.

He added by self-funding particular elements of the transformation, the ABS has been able to implement some new capabilities and de-risk particular solutions by creating prototypes. One of the self-funded capabilities that the ABS has installed was a metadata registry and repository statistical workflow management system.

"We're working currently on establishing statistician workbenches that will give you access to all of those workflows," he said.

"We're currently out in the market. We went out in two directions. One was for an RFT [request for tenders] for our enterprise data management environment, and we're also out in the market for expressions of interest to compile some multiuser lists," he said.

Hadley also confirmed the ABS will be going ahead with Census 2016 next August, despite reports that it would be canned amid IT woes. In fact, the ABS for the first time will make the census digitally available, Hadley said. To be known as eCensus, the platform will allow participants to complete forms online on multiple devices.

Late last year, the ABS was forced to tighten sensitive information controls, following the arrest of a staff member who was allegedly disclosing sensitive statistics that were under embargo in May last year.

Hadley described the incident as a traumatic experience for everyone that was concerned, but assured that the agency had implemented all the recommendations that were made by an independent review into the ABS sensitive information controls.

"We have addressed pretty much all over those recommendations now. They were around access management, and there is a learning whilst we can improve access management, improve our monitoring, and forensic analysis," he said.

"At the end of the day an insider threat where somebody has legitimate access to information as part of their role and chooses to write that down on paper, and take it outside of the building is almost impossible to guard against."