In its efforts to support the response to COVID-19, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) took a transformative approach to data sharing to provide decision-makers with insights into current data.

At the height of the pandemic — and as most of the world went into lockdown — two things became obvious; the response had to be coordinated between multiple agencies and these agencies were going to need accurate, authoritative and up-to-date statistics to help them understand how and where to act.  

In Australia, the COVID-19 Hub became a central source of data from multiple government agencies, like the ABS, providing a quick snapshot of cases around the country. 

It also demonstrated just how critical authoritative statistical data is to informing crisis response and highlighted the significance of the upcoming 2021 census. 

In preparation for the national count, the ABS has already carried out a census test in October 2020 to ensure the accuracy of the data it will be collecting next year to inform policy making over the next decade.

Transforming the Census 

To support COVID-19 response efforts, the ABS released a series of maps including an interactive visualisation of Australia’s at-risk populations — leveraging data from the national surveys as well as the last census.

With Australia up for a new count this year, preparations are already underway to test the systems and make sure the information collected will accurately inform policy over the next decade. 

Having worked with the US Census Bureau to prepare for the 2020 Census, I can share a few lessons learned from the transformation of their enumeration processes. 

1. Geospatial technology underpins every aspect of the 2020 Census

The incorporation of geospatial technology into every aspect of the census helped resolve many of the longstanding challenges involved in counting more than 330 million people.

One example is the use of satellite imagery and spatiotemporal analysis to validate 65% of addresses from the office, leaving only 35% requiring validation in the field.  

2.Efficient resource deployment 

What would have taken hours to canvas in the field was completed in less than two minutes in the office. With the hard-to-survey areas already identified, the Bureau deployed a much smaller address lister workforce to these locations to ensure they are included in the count. 

3. Data dissemination 

The mission is not to just collect the data, but to disseminate it and make it discoverable and fit for purpose. 

Driving tactical response 

An example of fit-for-purpose data feeding the response to the socio-economic impacts of the global pandemic is the Census Business Builder (CBB)

The Small Business Edition provides small business owners with key data to support their planning and understanding of potential markets.

The Regional Analyst Edition on the other hand is used by public safety and emergency responders to better understand the impact of a natural disaster such as fires, floods or hurricanes to be able to plan their response. 

It is deemed a mission-critical application and is also used by chambers of commerce and regional planning staff who need a broad portrait of the people and businesses in their service area. 

The Bureau also provides an interactive infographic showing weekly COVID-19 unemployment data by state. Overlaid with healthcare and insurance data, this can help highlight the populations who will be most impacted by the economic effects of the pandemic. 

There is a plethora of tools and capabilities that authorities can leverage to better visualise data and make it easy to understand allowing us to take action — but the key will always be in the accuracy and integrity of the data itself.

Linda Peters recently joined Directions with Stan Grant, to discuss how to turn data into effective policies that address some of humanity’s greatest challenges. Listen now.  

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About the Author

Linda Peters, Esri Inc
Linda Peters
Global data strategist
Working with global NSOs to apply geospatial analysis to census and other data-intensive activities.

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