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e-Government Case Studies

eCensus - Australian Bureau of Statistics

June 2007

eCensus  [pdf.gif 99kb]

Introduction

Every five years the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) is faced with the daunting task of counting the number and key characteristics of every person in Australia, including those living in remote areas such as offshore oil rigs. To do this, the ABS employs a large temporary workforce to deliver forms to every household and then collect completed forms after Census night.


With the introduction of eCensus as part of the 2006 Census of Population and Housing, the task has become somewhat easier for both the ABS and, potentially, all Australians.


eCensus is a tool that provides an accessible online form that can be used by people with a disability, using assistive technologies such as screen reader software. It also provides all Australians with a robust, secure and easy alternative to completing the paper Census form, and makes it easier for the ABS to count people living in isolated places.

Features

When collecting personal information, it is imperative to be able to ensure the privacy of that information. Accordingly, security for eCensus was ‘gold-plated’, with strong protection against malicious attacks from the internet, as well as an innovative solution to encrypting data within the data centre to ensure that only authorised ABS officers can view respondent data.


Respondents had to be able to save and exit their form, return later and view data they had previously entered. This meant the system had to be able to decrypt their data to present back to them, without the system administrators in the data centre data being able to access decrypted data. Data from fully completed forms was transmitted to the ABS in encrypted form, where it was decrypted for processing. Equipment and software that met Defence Signals Directorate security standards were used to meet these requirements.


As the application would potentially be used by every household in Australia, it had to be simple, and easy to use for people who don’t regularly use the internet. It also had to perform well over slow
dial-up connections, and meet World-Wide Web Consortium Guidelines for Accessibility. ABS tested the application extensively to ensure it was fully compatible with a wide range of commercial and open source web browsers.


A key integration challenge was letting collectors know which households had used eCensus. This was solved by sending an SMS to collectors when a household in their district completed their Census form online.


The ABS partnered with IBM on the eCensus project, with the two organisations working closely and openly. This allowed problems to be addressed promptly, contributing greatly to the success of the project and serving as a model for government agencies to successfully engage with private enterprise.

Outcomes

eCensus proved to be very successful, with many positive outcomes for Australians in general and for the ABS.


Approximately 780,000, or 9 per cent of Australian households used eCensus during the 2006 Census of Population and Housing. As this was the first time an online Census had been offered in Australia and there were no comparable international experiences, it was not known how many people would use eCensus. Another issue was the peak load expected on Census night. Yet despite the large load spike, with 315,000 forms submitted after 6.00pm on Census night and a peak of 55,000 users logged in at the same time, there were no load or performance issues.


The system was fully accessible for people with a disability, which meant that these people, especially those with vision impairment, no longer had to rely on a family member, friend or Census collector to help them complete the paper form. In addition, the general community was given greater convenience and flexibility to complete their Census form, and the ability to keep their data private from other members of their household or Census collectors.


Feedback from people who used the eCensus was very positive, with comments from respondents such as ‘A pleasure to complete. Very easy to navigate around the program’ and ‘eCensus is a brilliant way of completing the form. Simple, concise, and best of all, fast.’ In all, over 45 per cent of people said the eCensus was easy to use, and 35 per cent said it was quick. Only 6 per cent of respondents made negative comments.

 
From the ABS perspective, introducing eCensus has created various efficiencies in collecting and processing data. eCensus forms are processed immediately, without waiting for bulk deliveries of materials three weeks after Census night. For example, all personnel in Australia's Antarctic Territories completed an eCensus form, taking months off the time it has traditionally taken for paper forms to be returned via sea.

Electronically capturing eCensus returns also means that data is processed more efficiently, making Census results available more quickly. Also, as Census collectors no longer have to collect completed forms from every household, in future the ABS will not have to recruit as many collectors.

Future directions and lessons learnt


Given that 9 per cent of Australian households used eCensus, despite it not being actively promoted before the Census, the ABS is confident of using and promoting it as a primary channel for the 2011 Census. The ABS expects up to 35 per cent of Australians to choose eCensus in 2011.


eCensus gives the ABS scope to re-engineer the Census process and improve the overall quality of the Census. As eCensus will be the primary means of collecting data in the future, a much smaller field workforce will be required. Further, eCensus will enable collectors to focus on the quality of the coverage in their area and resolve exception cases, which will lead to improved Census data. There will also be less printed material, ultimately reducing the cost and environmental impact of the Census.


In the meantime, the ABS is helping other statistical agencies plan to collect census data online. In particular, it is helping the Office of National Statistics in Britain with planning for its 2011 Census, when an online option will be available for the first time.


Contact: Mr Peter Clark, Australian Bureau of Statistics (peter.clark@abs.gov.au)

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