What Immigration did with just $1m and open source software

 

Not everyone thinks tinkering on the cheap is a good idea, however.

The Department of Immigration has showed what a cash-strapped government agency can do with just $1 million, some open source software, and a bit of free thinking.

Speaking at the Technology in Government forum in Canberra yesterday, the Department's chief risk officer Gavin McCairns explained how his team rolled an application based on the 'R' language into production to filter through millions of incoming visitors to Australia every year.

Despite working for one of the largest bodies in Canberra - and one of the most security conscious - McCairns put his endorsement firmly behind the use of open source.

'R' is a software language designed for for statistical computing and graphics that runs on a wide variety of UNIX platforms, Windows and MacOS.

The systematic risk alert system that McCairns oversaw is now in full production in every airport in Australia. The whole project took just $1 million and 12 months.

"We developed an approach based on phases of prototype, pilot and production. It was based on the idea of trying stuff for nothing or very cheap,” McCairns said

“Our first pilot cost just $50,000. That was to get a consultant to teach us how to drive the open source software."

The application works towards the department's ultimate goal of having less passengers queueing for an immigration official in an airport and more being processed to come into Australia quickly and easily, by trawling through thousands of visa applications for suspect anomalies.

Australia's working holiday visa scheme receives some 290,000 applications each year. In 12 months the R-developed system threw up roughly 1000 anomalous applications, McCairns said, leading eventually to 69 visas being declined or cancelled on further investigation.

The system also helps with the identification of drug mules and their contacts using email IP addresses and data matching.

People are being seduced into committing to big applications, McCairns said.

“In the past the department bought some $15 million worth of software – but it’s gathering dust because nobody knows how to use it properly. I say kick the tyres before you buy the car.”

The rapid development of applications is changing the game, he believes - but not everyone shares his enthusaism.

Dirk Klein, general manager of ANZ public sector markets at SAS, sought to play down some of McCairns’ enthusiasm for open source rollouts in a chat with iTnews.

“When McCairns says he puts R in a production system, it can be scary,” Klein said.

He said the true cost of the supposedly free software can actually be quite substantial, when human resources and maintenance of the software is factored in.

Risk management is also a concern and liability for failure is unclear, he added

He pointed out that from a technical perspective, R has severe limitations when it comes to real time transactions.

“You would need huge amounts of hardware to make it perform. So the cost equation that went ostensibly from free becomes very expensive," he said.

Klein conceded R was an excellent teaching and experimental tool, but said commercial-off-the-shelf software (COTS) had many advantages over the budget alternative.

“R pops up in places where we are well established, as well. It’s used in sand pit operations, not production level operations. That’s the difference,” Klein argued.

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