Census 2016 – a study in the “management” of risk

This year’s Census is not off to a great start. Privacy concerns, an inability to cope with the mass volume of phone calls from people requesting paper copies of the Census and a chance that the forms may not arrive prior to Census day on August 9, has led me to question the level of risk assessment and management that has gone into the process.

Right now, we are looking at a complete shemozzle,” says Senator Nick Xenophon, and I couldn’t agree more.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no doubt that the Census team could point to a risk register that was done at the outset of the planning process containing a range of risks, but my question is simple: were they simply captured or were they actually managed?

The evidence so far may indicate the former.

So let’s look at the major risks I would have identified for the Census:

  • ABS is inundated with requests for hard copy forms;
  • disruption to on-line Census database on Census night;
  • hard copy Census forms not collected;
  • private data not submitted on the Census form; and
  • unauthorised access to, release of, or changes to private and confidential data.

My understanding of the purpose of a Census is that it’s a way to capture a meaningful data snapshot of Australian society in time and place. But, what we face in this Census is the very real possibility that:

  • Data will be potentially flawed and unreliable as it could be completed after 9th August;
  • A significant number of people may not submit forms; and
  • A significant number of forms may have information omitted due to privacy concerns.

Given the critical need for the data for policy and investment decisions at all levels of Government, the impacts could extend for years.

So, let’s look at some of these risks in detail.

 The ABS is inundated with requests for hard copy forms.

Let’s break this down. As reported by the Sydney Morning Herald (2 August): Sixty-five per cent of Australians are expected to complete the census online this year, doubling the online response rate of 2011.

Based on these anticipated numbers the ABS may have made assumptions on the number of phone operators required to receive requests for paper copies of the forms and this assumption may have informed the decision on how many forms should be printed.

But what if the expectations are exceeded?

Well, this is what happens – a classic automated voice message is triggered:

We are currently experiencing high call volumes in our automated system and are unfortunately unable to process your call at this time.

Chris Libreri, the general manager of the census and statistical network services division told news.com.au that an extra 400 operators had been employed to deal with the demand and the bureau is also advising people to call early in the morning or late at night.

Not 20 people, not 50 people, not even 100 people but 400 extra operators.  That would indicate to me that the number of calls to be received was seriously underestimated.

And the consequences:

  • significant frustration which is being played out in the media, thus negatively impacting on the reputation of the ABS and the Census;
  • many recipients may not receive their forms prior to Census night thus meaning that forms will be filled out on different nights;
  • many participants may not complete the forms at all;
  • Results of the Census may not actually reflect Australian society on the night of the Census.

And how are they going to be collected? In the past we have had Census collectors pick up the forms from residences.  Based on the underestimation of the volume of numbers requiring paper forms, I am guessing that, right now, the ABS is mobilising an increased number of collectors.

Private data not submitted on the Census form

In the past, Census data has been de-identified as soon as possible after the Census.  For 2016 the ABS announced that it will maintain the links of names and addresses to the private data for four years.

This has raised significant privacy concerns.

Here is an extract from the ABC’s 7.30 Report transcript:

Reporter, PAT MCGRATH: The Bureau has been warned before. Eleven years ago it hired Nigel Waters, Australia’s former deputy privacy commissioner, to investigate whether keeping identifying data for longer was a good idea.

NIGEL WATERS (Privacy Analyst): They backed off and decided not to do it because of the major privacy concerns involved. What they’re now doing is breaking the compact or the deal that they’ve had with the Australian people for the last hundred years, which is that in exchange for giving them very sensitive information, including about your relationships, your health, your financial circumstances, their part of the deal was to guarantee that that information would be de-identified as soon as possible.

The public is understandably concerned and this is likely to lead to information being omitted or forms not submitted at all.  The consequences?

  • Veracity of data will always be questioned;
  • Many participants may not complete the forms at all;
  • Results of the Census may not actually reflect Australian society on the night of the Census.

But why is the ABS keeping the data? The reason on their website is, in my opinion, not compelling: The Australian Bureau of Statistics has decided to retain names and addresses collected in the 2016 Census of Population and Housing in order to enable a richer and dynamic statistical picture of Australia through the combination of Census data with other survey and administrative data.

We all take a risk if we choose to believe the bureaucracy’s public relations. Yes, I’m a cynic but were we adequately informed that the reason for keeping this data for longer was so that it could be combined with other survey and administrative data. I’m not convinced of the veracity of that claim.

And what of the guarantees to protect this data from unauthorised access.  Back to the 7-30 Report:

PAT MCGRATH: Internet security specialists say there’s no way for the ABS to guarantee the data will be kept safe from hackers.

MARK GREGORY, RMIT COMPUTER ENGINEERING: I think Australians should be worried about the ABS collecting personal information and holding it with the Census data because they can’t guarantee the security of the information. We know that Australia does not have mandatory data breach recording laws, and until those laws are put in place and security improved, both within government and business, then Australians have a great concern about the privacy of any information that they provide.

The risk is obvious – but will the control measures that have been put in place allay the public’s fears?  If data does get used in an appropriate manner, Census 2021 will be interesting in terms of what data is provided by the public.

Disruption to on-line Census database on Census night

So we don’t know at this stage if this risk will eventuate, but my level of confidence based on the observations above is not high.

An ABS spokesman has assured the community that the: online (system) could handle “one million form submissions every hour. That’s twice the capacity we expect to need.”

We will see on the 9th August.

 

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