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​ABS signs AU$20m deal with Accenture for data collection

With the hearings for the Census Inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Economics set to begin this week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics has inked a AU$20 million deal with Accenture to redevelop its data collection process.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has turned to consultancy firm Accenture to help develop new data collection systems, with the components acquired under the new contract potentially shaping the next Census.

For a cost of AU$19.9 million, Accenture will enable the ABS to issue statistical products more affordably, efficiently, and with IT stability, according to Trevor Sutton, Deputy Australian Statistician of the Statistical Business Transformation Group.

"The Accenture engagement will enhance our digital data collection, reduce the manual handling, enable cost savings, reduce paper use, and improve our reporting and processes," Sutton said. "We will be implementing new management tools that will give us a greater capacity for automation, reducing cost and risk through the use of market leading off-the-shelf software rather than bespoke internally developed systems."

On August 9, the ABS experienced a series of denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, suffered a hardware router failure, and baulked at a false positive report of data being exfiltrated, which resulted in the Census website -- run by computer giant IBM -- being shut down and citizens unable to complete their online submissions.

Last month, the ABS said in its submission to the Census Inquiry by the Senate Standing Committee on Economics -- slated to kick-off this week -- that IBM failed to adequately address the risk posed to the Census systems it was under contract to provide, and that IBM should have been able to handle the DDoS attack.

"The online Census system was hosted by IBM under contract to the ABS, and the DDoS attack should not have been able to disrupt the system," the ABS said. "Despite extensive planning and preparation by the ABS for the 2016 Census, this risk was not adequately addressed by IBM and the ABS will be more comprehensive in its management of risk in the future."

Last Wednesday night, the ABS conceded it may hold some the blame for the debacle, with ABS head David Kalisch admitting to Senate Estimates that his agency tested the patience of Australians with its decision to take down the Census website on the night.

"We made a difficult decision to take the Census system offline on 9 August to ensure the security of Census data, but we should not have got to that point, and the system should have been robust to DDoS events," Kalisch said. "I apologise to the community on behalf of the ABS."

Under questioning, Kalisch revealed it had cost the agency AU$30 million to fix its systems, admitting the agency incurred additional costs of around AU$20 million and that he anticipates the ABS possibly spending another AU$10 million.

The deal with Accenture forms part of the AU$257 million transformation the ABS is currently undertaking and is expected to be completed by December 2017.

The ABS also said during Senate Estimates that 58 percent of Australian households had completed Census forms online, with the agency receiving a total of 4.9 million online forms and 3.5 million paper forms. The agency admitted this was shy of its 65 percent target for the online form.

ABS told ZDNet on Monday that it is considering lessons learned from the Census, which will include any recommendations from the review performed by Special Adviser to the Prime Minister on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon, and will apply relevant recommendations in the managing delivery of this solution.

"In light of the experience of the 2016 Census, additional checks were undertaken on the arrangements for contract management, solution design, and security of the proposed solution and delivery methods used by Accenture," the ABS said.

The agency said it has thus far sent out 1,800 refusal letters, and 239 direction notices to complete the Census. Approximately 10,000 Australians have refused to complete the Census, which is down on 13,000 refusals for the 2011 survey.

Updated 3.45pm AEST: The original headline stated Accenture would be involved in the 2021 Census, however involvement of the Accenture solution in future Census collections is not yet decided. Comments from the ABS have also been included.