The Australian Bureau of Statistics has been forced to prioritise the delivery of client-facing systems under its $250 million transformation to ‘maximise benefits’ ahead of the project’s June 2020 deadline.
The peak statistical agency revealed the decision in its 2018 annual report, released last week, to address emerging risks with the five-year statistical business transformation program (SBTP).
The program, which has been funded to the tune of $257 million, has been quietly upgrading ABS’ ageing systems – some of which are over 30 years old – since 2015 to address significant risk of failure.
The funding followed pleas from the then acting ABS boss Jonathan Palmer for funding to upgrade old and unstable IT systems and introduce new apps and portals to provide access to ABS data.
Last year the first issues with the complex project began to surface after an audit revealed the agency had been forced to approve an additional $10 million in funding to address issues.
The audit, which occurred shortly after the deputy Australian statistician and chief operating officer formerly in charge of the project left for the Digital Transformation Agency, urged the ABS to better manage costs associated with the SBTP program.
But with the program set to end at the end of this financial year, it now appears the agency is facing a race against the clock to finish the project.
“Transitioning ABS collections to new capabilities delivered by the SBTP has proven to be more challenging than anticipated,” the report states.
The agency said that as a result of these “challenges” it made a decision in September 2018 to “focus on client-facing systems to maximise the benefits delivered to ABS clients and users by June 2020”.
As part of this, it has also “prioritised the adoption of processes and technologies which impact on ABS providers and customers”.
“In September 2018, the SBTP approach was adjusted in light of the level of statistical and program risk which became apparent during early adoption of new processes and technology,” the report states.
“The revised scope has allowed the ABS to better manage statistical impact and prioritise benefits to ABS customers and providers.”
Instead, the agency focused on “the transition of statistical collections to the new SBTP ‘multi-channel’ data acquisition capabilities”.
“These new capabilities enable respondents to provide information through on-line questionnaires or interviews, and allow provision of bulk data to ABS,” the report states.
“Transition to these capabilities is underway for further collections, with remaining migration in line with the cyclical nature of the business.”
Despite the ongoing challenges, the agency was able to release some of the project’s key services over the last 12 months.
A new data sharing service, dubbed the ABS Indicator API, was introduced in November 2018 to share data with key media agencies more quickly to “support important decisions that impact financial markets”.
“Now, we can digitally provide key economic data to approved media partners, split seconds after the 11.30am embargo, enabling them to programmatically access selected market moving indicators instantly,” the report states.
“The API technology that underpins this new service will be extended in 2019–20, enabling other ABS customers to access our wide range of ABS data releases instantaneously.”
The ABS’ use of its next generational infrastructure platform also increased during the 2018-19 financial year, with a range of existing IT systems migrated to “take advantage of the increased automation and scalability”.
“As part of these migrations enhanced testing and deployment practices were introduced to support the increased use of agile development approaches across the ABS,” the agency said.
The ABS Intelligent Coder, which aims to improve “efficiency and accuracy of statistical coding and classification of data, through the use of machine learning capabilities”, is also now ready for use, while the ABS DataLab is continuing to grow.
The agency is also continuing to progress development of its new website, which is expected to enter production next year. The existing ABS website has also moved to a new infrastructure platform.
It follows the release of the agency’s beta concepts website launched last December,
The most recent gateway review of SBTP conducted by the Department of Finance in January 2019 made six recommendations for the project, though these have not been detailed.