16 December 2014

Address to celebrate 50 years of computing at the ABS, Canberra


Check against delivery

Thank you, Jonathan.

And thank you for your work, for much of this year, as the Acting Australian Statistician. It has been a longer journey than we anticipated, however, you have taken the challenges in your stride.

May I, of course, start by acknowledging David Kalisch as the new Australian Statistician.

David – congratulations on your appointment. I know we’ve had a number of discussions already about your vision for the ABS and the Government’s vision for the ABS and, indeed, we are on the same page.

In considering your appointment I looked closely at the work you have done with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare and was impressed with the feedback I received.

Indeed, people see the Institute as respected, responsive to the needs of its end users and efficient in the way it uses the resources given to it by Government and its customers.

I look forward to your stewardship of this great Australian institution, the ABS, and the crucial role you play as the Australian Statistician.

A 50 year anniversary in a field as new as computing is quite an achievement.

The installation of the Bureau's first computer, the Control Data Corporation CDC 3600, was a watershed moment for the Australian public service and it is an occasion worth celebrating.

In 1964, the then-Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics was one of the leaders at the start of a new era: the introduction of digital computing into the Australian public sector.

This early foray into computing was a remarkable investment at the time - over 2.2 million pounds, or as worked out by the inflation calculator on the ABS’s own website - $28.9 million in today's money.

This investment was significant, and I’m informed it meant by the end of 1965, the Bureau's computing installation had 90 per cent more computing power than all the computers installed - or on order - in the United States.

Given Australia was a country with a population of only eleven and a half million people at the time, this is quite impressive.

The CDC 3600, I am told, was able to process one MIP – or one million instructions per second. Just for comparison, an iPhone 5S is around 18,000 times faster!

In 1964, one MIP was solidly in supercomputer territory, and the ABS made this resource available to other government agencies.

By 1966, the Treasury, the Tax Office, Department of Health and the Public Service Board - among others - were all using the Bureau's computers and operating staff.

The innovative use of technology has been a key driver of the ABS's ability to provide Australians with timely and reliable statistical information.

The potential of leading edge technology to drive efficiencies still resonates today.

I suspect there may be a few cynics who still believe the CDC 3600 is still in use by the ABS today!

It is undeniable the ABS is facing some major challenges with its now ageing systems. These are challenges your management, and the Government are determined to meet. We are not prepared to keep kicking the can down the road as it has been for too long.

The digital age is one which provides many opportunities for the ABS.

Big data is just one of these areas. I’m understand the ABS is now exploring how it can utilise point-of-sales data, satellite imagery, and administrative data to provide richer, more dynamic information.

Indeed, the digital age represents tremendous potential for the ABS.

I want to see the ABS as, once again, the trail blazers in Government. The agency as the central repository of official data to be made available for statistical and research purposes in new and innovative ways.

To realise this goal, there does need to be some change. Not wholesale change, but change to enhance the ABS’ strengths; to drive a culture of innovation; to drive an agency much more focused on market demand and building customers as a service supplier.

Today’s anniversary is significant because it celebrates a point in time when the ABS was at the very forefront of technology.

And this is where it can be again.

Skivvies, not cardigans, is the image I’ve expressed before. Whether you adopt the dress code or not, the attitude is what’s important.

The ABS is a world-class national statistical organisation. I know the ABS has the ability to embrace the changes it needs to grow and thrive, and open a new exciting chapter in its history.

You all have a long-standing reputation for producing high-quality, independent statistics, and remain one of Australia's most respected public institutions.

Under David’s stewardship, I’m confident the ABS will be at the forefront of Government in a digital age.

Thank you.