Saturday, June 16, 2012

Remember the census? It's about to change, big-time

See below for a profile of the man with the ideas, Brian Pink

The avalanche of census data due for release Thursday is just a taste of what’s to come.

Until now each Australian has been asked the same set of questions on the 18-page form which has been hand-delivered to each of Australia’s 8.5 million households.

Next time, in 2016, there won’t be a form at all unless someone rings and asks for one. All that will be delivered is a letter - by post - including login details and a password. The success of the 2011 electronic lodgement campaign in which 30 per cent of households went online has persuaded the Bureau of Statistics to go for a “big bang” and abandon face-to-face contact.

The savings will amount to $100 million of the $454 million it costs to run each census. Initially they will all be used to beef up the technology. By 2021 the survey will be barely recognisable. Individually-tailored questions will be added to the core questions asked for 100 years.

“Until now the census has been the most expensive real estate in Australia. To get an extra question on the form has been bloody difficult because most of it has had to repeat the questions asked in previous surveys,” explains Australian Statistician Brian Pink.

“But once it becomes predominantly an electronic instrument we won’t have to ask the same questions to every person in the population. For instance special questions can pop up for people who are disabled. We can reach every disabled person in the country.”

“You take people with school kids, okay? Transport planners have been on to us for years about journeys to school. We ask about journeys to work, but we haven’t been able to ask about school because it would take half a page. With the electronic survey if you have children of school age you will be asked those questions but someone like me won’t. We might ask extra questions to people who have recently arrived in Australia.”

“It forced my team to start testing each other – to say hey, what about this. We don’t yet know the limits to what’s possible.”

One limit will be fatigue... But Mr Pink says the Bureau has discovered Australians stay happier for longer answering questions online.

“In both 2006 and 2011 people said it was much faster online. But our testing shows the time taken was about the same. What was happening was that people were taking more care with the answers - we know this from the quality of the answers.”

The online census will probably ask 25 common questions and another 10 to 20 special questions. For the first time some of the information will be provided by third parties.

“In their last two censuses Canada has given people the option of consenting to the tax office providing their income data so they don’t have to. Around 85 per cent have said yes. We will have that capability if our Tax Office agrees.

“When you get that the data becomes much more richer. To date the census has been a blunt instrument, we haven’t been able to ask too much. Tax information will tell us about income from rents, investment and all sorts of other things sorted by the type of household. And we will get it by being less intrusive.”

The ABS is already using Tax Office data to replace some its business data collections. Mr Pink says businesses love it, it bothers them less. It is also testing checkout scanner data provided by two large retail chains to see if it can replace some of the shadow shopping used to compile the consumer price index.

In today's Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald


Brian Pink has squeezed me in between international meetings - one in Geneva, the next one in France - where he is planning something big; so big that it will create a sort-of ‘super-census’ able to collect far more infomation about us far more cheaply than ever before.

Australia’s chief statistician slips into Rocksalt, an intimate restaurant in the Canberra suburb of Hawker like a local, which he is. He lives in a nearby suburb of Belconnen, the north Canberra satellite where the Australian Bureau of Statistics has its headquarters 10 kilometres away from the apex of government in the parliamentary triangle.

“Our location is an advantage,” he says over dips. “Probably 60 per cent of my Canberra staff live in the Belconnen catchment.” It locks them in, keeps them with the Bureau. As does its unusual status of having an office in each Australian capital. “Many of the graduates we hire want to go back to their home states. We can let them - each state office has a specialty. All of our agricultural work is done in Tasmania for example. Our competitors can’t, they lose staff.”

Brian Pink has run the Bureau of Statistics for five years. Before that he ran Statistics New Zealand, landing the job because he was an ABS veteran, having joined what was then Australia’s Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics straight out of university in 1966. “I processed motor vehicle registrations in the Sydney office by hand,” he tells me over calamari. “We had to count up the number of Holdens and Falcons on lists sent from the motor registry.”

“I said to the lady who was in charge of it - all of the adding machine operators were women - we ought to be able to write a program to do this. Before long I was computerising the office flexitime system.”

Canberra called. Pink didn’t want to go. The Northern Beaches were his playground. (His father has only recently died in the family home at Seaforth, aged 97.) He had married a woman he met sailing in Middle Harbour and was planning a family. He accepted on the proviso that it was only for six months and they could commute. “But they promoted me twice, so we moved to Belconnen.”

Harnessing the power of computing has been the dominant thread in Pink’s ABS career, as has putting distance between the ABS and politicians.

Within months of taking on the top job on his return from New Zealand he cut off the early access to key statistics traditionally offered to the Treasurer and other government ministers, insisting instead they see them at the same time as everyone else - 11.30 am. Beside my scarcely touched pumkin filos on the table are the labour force figures released an hour earlier. “Wayne Swan tweeted about these at 11.40,” I tell him. “Are you saying he hadn’t seen them until I had at 11.30?” Pink nods and says he lets government officials see them in a pre-release lockup in the Treasury building, but doesn’t let the officials out until 11.30.

“You would have heard those figures moved the dollar,” he tells me. Someone made money. I want to be absolutely sure no-one gets them early. I myself don’t see them until the morning they are released.”

There are occasional problems. Two years ago South Australia briefly lost its mantle as Australia’s biggest wine producer. A coding error gave to NSW. News reports alerted the ABS to the unlikely result and it tracked down and fixed the error. “I want people to challenge our data – that’s a good thing, it helps us pick things up,” he says pouring another glass of plain water. I tell him I am unhappy with the labour force release beside me on the table. I think the methods used by the ABS falsely make it look as if jobs growth stopped during 2011. He says he doesn’t believe there is a problem, but gives every indication he’ll put my concerns to his staff, giving them just as much weight as if they came from the Treasurer.

“My Act is very specific. Neither the treasurer nor prime minister can tell me how to go about my business. They can tell me what information to collect, but they can’t tell me how to do it, when to do it or how often to do it.”

Although appointed by the governor general on the recommendation of treasurer Peter Costello, Pink can only be removed by both houses of parliament.

“It’s different elsewhere. In Argentina the head of consumer and prices statistics was removed by the president and threatened with a treason charge for producing data the president didn’t like.”

“In the United Kingdom all manner of statistics are prepared and released by ministries. The minister decides on the timing and what’s said when they are released.”

Although a jetsetter and something of an international guru - he is chairman of the OECD Committee on Statistics, and vice chair of the United Nations Statistical Commission - Pink networks most with his colleagues in Canada and New Zealand, who coincidentally run their censuses in the same years as Australia. Together they are planning a ‘big bang’ for 2016 - the biggest step yet away from the Bethlehem census in which baby Jesus was born in the first books of the New Testament.

But first he needs to fix the ABS budget.

He arrived back in 2007 to find it a mess. Costs had been rising far faster than expected. ABS interviewers knock on 30,000 doors to prepare the monthly employment statistics. Once contacted each household stays in the survey for eight months, with most of the subsequent contacts by phone. But its been getting harder to find people at home.

“We’re at the stage now where 70 per cent of approaches are non-contact. We have to send our interviewers back at night. Even ringing back is harder. Australians are moving away from fixed phones.”

In order to make big savings quickly Pink slashed the number of households surveyed by a quarter, making parts of the employment survey less reliable. He later restored the sample size while setting in train a line by line examination of what the Bureau did and whether it was needed. A “couple of hundred” of the Bureau’s 2,900 staff lost their jobs. Pink decreed that half the job losses had to come from his colleagues in management. He was not popular. “Some felt I was a traitor. Others could see the decision was in the Bureau’s long-term interest. Ensuring the security of an organisation is lonely,” he says.

His next step could set the Bureau up forever.

The first results of the 2011 census go on line Thursday. They cost $20 per person to collect. In 2011 there were 22.7 million Australians, making the total cost around $454 million. Pink plans to cut it by $100 million.

The victims will be the army of 30,000 casual workers the Bureau has traditionally used to knock on every door in the country and leave an 18-page form.

In 2016 all that will be delivered is a letter, by post. Each letter will include details of web access and a password. Only if someone is determined not to complete the census online will they they be posted a form, after phoning a 1800 number. Only if nothing is returned will an ABS employee visit.

The change will not only save money, it will improve the quality of the answers. “Our testing shows people think it takes much less time to fill in the form online. It doesn’t actually, but it bothers people less. They give more considered answers and they are prepared to answer more questions. And we can ask them different questions.”

From 2021, after the 2016 changes have been bedded down, the census will no longer be one-size-fits-all document. Parents might be asked how their children travel to school. People with disabilities might be asked detailed questions about how they cope.

“Going digital completely reshapes your thinking about what’s possible. We could have never reached every person with a disability in the past. We wouldn’t know where to find them. We are tossing around the ideas about what’s possible now. We are coming up with thoughts as fast as Canada and New Zealand, and we are sharing them.”

And sharing the idea of letting the Tax Office in on the act. When Canada offered the option of ticking a box on the census form to allow the Tax Office to answer the income questions 85 per cent of the population said yes. Suddenly the data was far richer. “They knew how much each member of each household made from rents, from investments, and they could relate it to the number of children, the ages of adults - things that were never possible before.”

The ABS is already using Tax Office data to ease the burden on business. So long as businesses consent, the Tax Office rather than an ABS interviewer provides information about its sales and profits. It is also experimenting with scanner data from supermarket chains as a labour-saving alternative to preparing part of the consumer price index. Pink says one of the problems is that the data is so rich. Right now the Bureau surveys the price of a 200 gram Cadbury block to work out the price of chocolate. With complete scanner data it is hard to know where to start.

Reversioning data from other organisations is a holy grail for Pink. In New Zealand he combined tax data with files from the accident compensation scheme to discover that accident victims who had been out of work for six months never ever regained their previous income. “That would have been very hard to work out any other way - it’s an indication of the enormous potential there is in unlocking data we already have.”

Pink talks as if he doesn’t want to finish. But then says he’ll retire in two years time. He has two children in their forties. His son in Perth has just given him his first grandchild and wants him to buy a boat, moor it in Fremantle and stay in Perth for months at a time.

“That would mean you won’t be around in 2016 to see your vision for the census come to fruition,” I ask, surprised given the plans he has outlined, as he orders a cappuccino and I order a long black. “No I won’t,” he says. “I will have been a manager for fourteen years by then, almost seven in New Zealand and seven here. I’ve got good people coming up behind me. I don’t want to deny them the opportunity.”

I can’t really imagine Pink just walking away and I tell him so. He has spent three hours telling me how much there is to be done. “Even on a yacht I am sure you’ll take an enormous interest in every part of the plans for 2016,” I say as I get the bill. “I will,” he says as if he means it.

In today's Canberra Times and Sydney Morning Herald

RAISED Seaforth, near Sydney’s northern beaches. The eldest of two boys.

EDUCATED Balgowlah Boys High, University of NSW. Studied accounting, financial management and statistics.

1966 Joined Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics

1987 Appointed Government Statistician for Western Australia

1997 Put in charge of technology services for the Australian Bureau of Statistics

2000 Headhunted to become chief executive of Statistics New Zealand

2007 Appointed Australian Statistician by treasurer Peter Costello

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. Why the jobs data is flawed