Australian censuses usually pass without too much fuss and produce one of the most trustworthy sets of official statistics in the world. But the 2016 Census has seen data collection in the news, on talk shows, trending on twitter. So what’s the problem? Well statisticians aren’t always the best communicators. That’s why Community Insight Australia exists – because there’s a huge gap between the raw data and what most people easily understand. For this census, the Australian Bureau of Statistics changed the rules to keep people’s names and addresses for at least four years. And they failed to predict then effectively respond to the confusion and fear that many Australians felt when they learned of this change.
We have learnt from studying confidence in vaccines, that when people have real concerns and we throw information at them, they are even less likely to change their mind because they feel they’re not being listened to. So before we spew forth information about data linkage and all its potential, let’s take a look at the concerns[*].
And these concerns were realised. The census website was shut down due to attacks from hackers. Although it doesn’t appear these hackers accessed any information.
That’s pretty scary, so why aren’t we scared too?
Well it’s a lot easier to trust people you’ve met, and we’ve met a lot of people who work at the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Like most people who know a lot about the ABS, we have a great deal of trust in them. They’re like you’d expect – most of them very clever, quiet, thoughtful. They dedicate their lives to collecting data and presenting it in a way that maintains confidentiality. Shutting down the census website is consistent with that – it’s a public relations nightmare, but it put data security first. We’ve also spent the last year trying to get information from a lot of different government agencies, and even though we’re not asking for individual names and addresses, we’re hearing ‘No’ a lot because of data confidentiality. While we’d like them to be a bit more flexible, we couldn’t have more confidence in the integrity of public data custodians around Australia. And finally, we’ve done some work on the processes of data linkage. Current data linkage processes do not combine more than one dataset and personal information at the same time, so even if the data was hacked or leaked, it would be difficult to identify you. We’ll write a bit more about that next time.
But for now, as we wonder what will become of this stalled 2016 Census, we understand why people are worried about providing their names and addresses. If we didn’t capture your concerns, please add them in the comments below.
 ABS, 2010, Trust in ABS and ABS Statistics: A survey of specialist users and the general community http://www.nss.gov.au/nss/home.nsf/0/553dde916ab833e9ca2577b50072bf2f/$FILE/Trust%20in%20ABS%20and%20ABS%20Statistics.pdf
[*] If you have a concern that we haven’t captured, please let us know in the comments below.