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2016 Census ‘a debacle'

While moving the census online was expected to save Australian taxpayers more than $100 million, has the attempt at moving to digital really been worth it?
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Census figures indicate 65 per cent of Australian households are expected to fill the census in online. This means there is still 35 per cent of the population requiring a paper form either because these households aren’t online or they don’t trust giving personal information online; many of these households are older people.

Furthermore this 35 per cent doesn’t account for the number of people who have since requested a paper form when been given only the digital option.

“It’s fair to say the whole census exercise was a debacle,” says Sarah Saunders, Chief Advocate, National Seniors. “The shift to online was poorly communicated, and little regard was given to older people without internet access.”

The ABS sent out around 8 million letters and field officers were employed to visit people in remote areas, aged care and retirement living facilities, hospitals and other similar establishments.

In the run up to the census night, Ms Saunders says National Seniors was bombarded with calls from people who either couldn’t get through on the ABS line to order a paper form, or were afraid their forms wouldn’t arrive on time.

The high demand for paper forms highlights the difficulty in the change of process of pushing people online.

“The threat of severe fines caused undue anxiety for people on low, fixed incomes,” she says, adding seniors also had privacy concerns.

“While older Australians are normally great supporters of the Census the handing over of names and addresses and data cross-matching are a step too far.”

And even if people had internet access and wanted to complete their form early online, some were unable to do so; the census website hadn’t accounted for older browsers on people’s computers. Again, this is an issue which older people face because many do not realise they should update their browsers regularly, and indeed, may not even know how to do so.

Ms Saunders thinks the fact the entire system crashed on the night only reinforces all these concerns.

“The attitude of simply ‘ploughing ahead regardless’ in the shift to online, is unacceptable,” she says. “People, both young and old, who don’t have internet access must be given other, working options. This also includes culturally and linguistically diverse groups. Otherwise large swathes of Australians will be increasingly marginalised.” 

It’s thought around 1.3 million people successfully completed the form until the outage at around 7.30pm (AEST) on Tuesday 9 August which has been blamed on four Denial of Service (DoS) attacks. However, some computer security experts think the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was unprepared for the expected 15 million people who would want to complete the form online.

In his article in The Conversation, online security researcher Dr Mike Johnstone queried whether the ABS was prepared for the volume of traffic. However he did think it may have been possible that a combination of a DoS attack and the system buckling under the weight of traffic caused the website shutdown.

Dr Johnstone concluded in the article: “If it’s probable the Census servers simply failed under the weight of their task, then that’s the most likely explanation, rather than a deliberate DDoS [Distributed DoS] attack”.

With $9.6 million paid to IBM to host the census, and nearly $470,000 to Revolution IT for load-testing, one has to wonder how this happened.

The ABS has stated there will be no fines for anyone who didn’t manage to complete the Census form on Tuesday night. Australians have until 23 September to complete the Census before receiving a $180 penalty.

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