Bureau of Statistics uses agile for 2016 Census

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Bureau of Statistics uses agile for 2016 Census

Prepares for more online use.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics is using the agile methodology for software development to prepare itself for the 2016 Census and an expected influx of data associated with a boost in online users.

The ABS first delivered the online eCensus solution in 2006. The application was custom built by IBM and the ABS using a suite of IBM software, including a DB2 database and WebSphere application software. It is hosted in IBM’s Baulkham Hills data centre.

For the 2006 Census, 778,000, or 10 percent, of Australian households completed their forms online.

That figure grew 23 percent in the 2011 Census, when 2.6 million Australian households used the eCensus solution to submit their forms. 

For the 2016 Census, the ABS’ IT team is expecting an even larger number of Australian households to take up the online option.

Around 110 of the Bureau’s technology staff have spent the past year-and-a-half being trained up in the agile methodology of software development, for both the upcoming Census and other smaller technology projects.

The agency recently undertook an audit of agile skills across its 400-strong technology staff and found it needed to train more scrum masters, product owners and team members. It will soon recruit a training partner to skill up 15 staff as scrum masters and up to 10 as product owners. 

The ABS’ head of technology engagement and design Lane Masterton told iTnews the agency had been using the method for small-to-medium projects but was looking to scale up its use more widely across the organisation. 

“We’ve just found it works well in regards to the work we’re doing with service-oriented architecture,” he said.

“We’ve already had really strong engagement between business and IT people, but use of agile processes really helps drive the engagement there.

"The focus on continuous delivery and timeboxing is really helping to drive that engagement between IT and business to make sure we’re focused on delivering the most important parts of the project.”

Moving to an online model 

A majority of the technology division’s time currently is being spent on preparing for the next census — specifically around how data is collected from the web and disseminated, as well as how field staff are managed. 

The team is looking at what changes need to be made to support growth as well as what its future IT architecture state might look like.

“With every census we do a range of work to streamline operations and to make sure we are working as efficiently and effectively as we can,” Masterton said.

“For us it’s really a chance to revisit what went well in 2011 and to focus on the changes for 2016 — potentially a larger takeup of online services.

"We’re also doing some work looking at how we provide support to our field staff and how we integrate those processes with our backend systems to make sure we manage census operations as efficiently as possible.”

The expected growth in 2016 of online participants to the census is likely to mean changes for the ABS field staff. 

The ABS has a team of around 43,000 field workers employed to deliver census forms to every household in Australia. 

The 2016 Census will bring with it a new approach to delivery and collection of census forms, meaning staff will no longer need to visit every dwelling in a large proportion of areas across the country.

Instead the ABS will send out secure access codes for the eCensus solution by mail in the first instance. In certain areas the ABS will mail out paper forms if requested, with households able to mail the forms back.

Census field staff in those areas will only visit households who have neither filled the form out online nor returned it via mail.

“The way delivery and collection is undertaken needs to change to support online return as the primary approach," the ABS said in a note explaining the new approach. "This approach takes into account social changes and public expectations."

Census field staff will still be needed in other areas of Australia where the traditional delivery and collection method will apply. 

Masterton expects as a result of the new approach, less field staff will be required.

“There’s still going to be a requirement for some field staff — not everybody will fill it out online — but if more people start making use of the online census form that will change our thinking about how we make use of field staff.”

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