Nerves jangle as census goes online

Statistics New Zealand plans to offer an internet lodgement option in the 2006 census and government statistician Brian Pink admits he's nervous at the prospect.

Statistics New Zealand plans to offer an internet lodgement option in the 2006 census and government statistician Brian Pink (pictured) admits he’s nervous at the prospect.

“It could be a bloody disaster,” Pink told an audience at the government IT managers (GOVIS) conference in Wellington last week.

However, the former CIO of the Australian Bureau of Statistics is working to minimise the risk by developing systems in conjunction with his ex-colleagues across the Tasman and with the Canadian statistics department. But New Zealand will be going first: our census will be in March, followed by Canada in May and Australia in August.

“It’s a good example in the e-government space of three governments working together on a common problem,” Pink says.

His nervousness is less to do with the technology than with unforeseen effects on the agency’s business processes. For example, he has to try to calculate how many fewer census forms to print to allow for those who take up the internet option, and where to distribute them. That’s not a trivial issue when the print run being contemplated — six million forms — is the biggest in the country.

Relying on sampling to gauge numbers can be misleading: when the agency asked 20,000 households prior to the 2001 census how many would be willing to have their completed forms kept for historical purposes, more than 80% were willing. However, when the full census was undertaken, just over 50% approved of the archiving.

The three partner countries will give the system a thorough workout before before March 2006. A year before, New Zealand will conduct a “mini census” of 20,000 households.

“That will test the system from end to end,” Pink says. “Everything will have to be bedded down by then.”

Pink might be more concerned about business than technology issues, but there are technical wrinkles to iron out. The census records details of just those people who happen to be in the country on a particular date. The agency will therefore have to find a way to filter out forms lodged over the internet by people outside the country, probably by IP address.

It will also need to have a system for dealing with duplicate forms from those who begin completing them online but revert to paper — and for dealing with any inconsistency of responses between the two.

A key part of the process will be communicating to the 7000 census enumerators — the people who deliver and retrieve the paper forms — which members of households have filed electronically and which haven’t.

“Data quality is going to be a big challenge,” Pink says. “A crude but quick quality assurance check will be to ask why the same number of paper forms as were dropped off aren’t being handed back.”

But of the main technical details — authentication, secure data transfer, supporting multiple sessions and high peak transaction loads — he’s not too worried.

“It’s all about change management — and with a project like the census, you only get one shot.”

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