The essay set out below has been on this site since 2001.
As announced in the 2005-05-10 Federal Budget, data from the ABS has been available online free of charge since 2005-07-01.
Official wheels grind slowly, but it is pleasing that the Government has at long last implemented Nick Renton's recommendations.
THE ABS ATTITUDE TO THE INTERNET IS UNFAIR
The Australian Bureau of Statistics is best known by the general public for its quarterly Consumer Price Index announcements and for conducting a census every five years. People also know that the bureau measures wage rates and unemployment.
However, its work for the community goes well beyond those highly visible aspects. The ABS plays an important role in the national economy.
Its information is used by both the public and the private sectors for planning purposes. Many businesses rely on ABS data for marketing strategies and for many other tasks.
It is probably not widely recognised, but the Australian community actually pays for this service three times:
It would seem reasonable that most of the statistics produced by this government agency at taxpayer expense should then be made freely available to the general public. Intelligent use of such figures would lead to a better economy.
With some exceptions the ABS employs a "user pay" policy. In particular, clients wanting information specially tailored to their individual needs can obtain it in return for an appropriate payment, a fee for service. This is probably reasonable enough in a commercial context - although less so in relation to the academic world.
It is also understandable that the normal printed publications issued by the ABS on a monthly, quarterly or yearly basis should involve some minor charge - at least to cover the actual costs at the margin of paper, printing, handling and postage. But it is not appropriate that such fees should generate significant profits - even if these are then used somewhere else by way of cross-subsidisation.
However, as businesses would realise if they thought about it, the contents of these papers should be made available free of charge to all users. After all, the collection and tabulation of the data have in the main already been financed by the normal annual appropriations in the Federal budget.
Furthermore, the basic information needs to be put together in any case for the purposes of government administration, irrespective of whether or not anyone in the private sector later on buys the detailed figures.
This suggests that all the data in the possession of the ABS could very easily be put on the Internet and thus be readily made available to all and sundry for very little outlay.
The ABS already puts the latest key indicator figures on the World Wide Web at http://www.abs.gov.au - so that the marginal cost of in addition providing access to historical data would be negligible.
Many private sector organisations with web sites which set out current information voluntarily also include archival material. They then make its location and retrieval easy through the use of appropriate search facilities.
If such an approach is good enough for these organisations then why cannot the taxpayer-funded ABS provide an equivalent or superior service?
And why should, for example, the Consumer Price Index figures for the latest calendar quarter (6401.0) be on public display in great detail without charge but not those for earlier periods (although these were originally available thus)? Is there any point of principle involved in this distinction?
And why is the useful "search" facility buried away deep in the ABS site instead of being on the home page, where lay readers would naturally expect to find it?
In contrast, the American counterparts of the ABS, the United States Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, maintain two very extensive sites at http://www.census.gov and http://stats.bls.gov respectively. Data can readily be downloaded in a large variety of formats selected by the user.
In addition, the Federal Interagency Council on Statistical Policy in the United States offers what it describes as "one stop shopping for Federal statistics" at http://www.fedstats.gov
All these sites are naturally open to inquirers throughout the world. It seems strange indeed that Australian businesses can thus get American statistical data more readily and more cheaply than they can get their own.
It also raises the question of what potential business entrepreneurs from overseas who are contemplating investing in Australia must think of our level of sophistication.
Interestingly, there are many precedents in the Australian public sector for making information available free of charge on the Internet. For example, taxation statistics are available on the Australian Taxation Office site http://www.ato.gov.au
In a different area, members of the public can now readily read online or download legislation and the decisions of the superior courts from http://scaleplus.law.gov.au
Governments are always paying lip service to making Australia the clever country and to expanding the information super highway. It is high time for the ABS to be pushed into the 21st century.
© 2001 N E Renton. All rights reserved.
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This page http://nickrenton.com/908.htm was last updated on 2007-12-26