- Supporting resource allocation decisions with near real-time insights into operational performance
- Evolved from static overnight snapshot reports to near-real-time reports that refresh multiple times an hour
Every five years, the Australian Bureau of Statistics counts every person and household in Australia. It includes around 10 million households and over 25 million people. Census data tells us about the economic, social, and cultural make-up of the country. The Census is a massive logistical operation that coordinates thousands of temporary staff around Australia.
To ensure efficient and comprehensive collection of Census forms both online and in the field, the ABS requires timely insights into the performance of its digital service and deployment of its field staff.
Historically, operational reporting to identify bottlenecks and inefficiencies in the Census form collection process has been performed manually by a small team. Reports were produced overnight based on the previous day’s data, which delayed the opportunity for management to interpret and respond to developing trends. This delay meant opportunities to optimise the in-field approach to form collection may have passed.
Uniquely familiar with the power of data analytics, in 2020, the ABS saw an opportunity for the 2021 Census to transform the way it analysed and reported operational performance of its online channels and field workers. The ABS decided to create an Operational Insights (OI) reporting platform that could deliver the correct data to decision-makers – early and often. The ABS partnered with AWS Professional Services cloud experts to design and build a data analytics platform.
The purpose of this platform was to consolidate the many disparate data sources into a single real-time reporting dashboard that was user-customisable by hundreds of decision-makers.
Due to Shine’s deep experience in engineering and operating mission-critical enterprise data lakes, AWS approached Shine to work on data engineering, migration, analytics and reporting development.
The goal was to produce an automated and scalable platform design that could deliver performance insights in near real-time to support Census digital and field operations.
The project began with a four-week consultation to gather user requirements, scope the data sources, and understand objectives. The key challenges for the project were rooted in the nature of the data. The data lake would need to aggregate over two terabytes of queryable data in almost 200 tables from various sources of real-time, batch, structured and unstructured data.
Additionally, given that many individual operational areas were collecting data, there were inconsistencies in common shared metric definitions, making it difficult to aggregate and match data accurately.
When complete, the platform also needed to be ready for IRAP (Information Security Registered Assessors Program) compliance assessment and meeting security standards certification for ‘Protected’ level classified government data.
Working with AWS Professional Services and ABS business and IT staff, Shine provided architectural and engineering services through both the design and build phases of the project. The ABS consulted across business units to harmonise metric definitions and recommend new ones to solve the challenges of inconsistent definitions and datasets.
Shine and AWS consultants built a custom data transformation framework to allow the ABS to construct common conceptual data objects or entities (data/metric definitions, data points, and produce reports), derivations and dependencies.
The engineering team also built a serverless data transformation engine to ensure the resulting 1,200-plus dependent data transformations are executed in the right order. This would resolve and enforce the data dependencies each time a transformation and reporting cycle is executed.
The platform consisted of a light-duty transformation and ingestion stage, ensuring that data from different upstream systems are consistent before uploading to Amazon Redshift.
A heavy-duty transformation step then applies the business logic to produce reports, before publishing to Amazon Aurora where the data is then visualised in the Microsoft Power BI tool already licenced by ABS.
For efficiency and minimal maintenance, the solution used a low-maintenance serverless approach, reducing infrastructure overhead and facilitating auto-healing and recovery. Use of serverless technologies supported the ABS’ goals of scalability to meet operational demand as well as cost optimisation.
The OI platform was designed and tested to ingest millions of changes in upstream data sources while processing data to produce the reports. The platform is capable of ingesting millions of updates or inserts per second. Transformation and reporting cycles are executed every 20 minutes. However, they could be executed more frequently, given that some are performed near real-time or in just a few minutes.
Having established the data lake and reporting solution, AWS and Shine consultants built a custom interface to support users searching for and extracting data sets and reports.
Given that the platform automatically resolves data dependencies and transformation, statisticians, data miners, and operational executives can generate meaningful insights rather than build datasets and reports from scratch.
In addition, the close cooperation and knowledge transfer among Shine, AWS and ABS throughout the project, allowed an upskill in Python and cloud experience within the ABS operations team responsible for supporting the platform.
Shine worked to deliver the platform to production on schedule in around six months. This system was accepted into service on time for the ABS Census Readiness Exercise in 2020, where it faced a smaller-scale test ahead of the 2021 Census.
During the Census Readiness Exercise, the new Operational Insights platform was well received by end-users. New and unexpected reporting use cases were revealed and added by the ABS teams responsible for managing the field workforce, due to the data and reports being more concise, accurate and up to date.
When Census operations commenced in July 2021, the OI platform became a vital tool for real-time monitoring and optimisation of resource allocation. The platform executed around 1,200 data transformations to produce 101 datasets which fed into 51 PowerBI reports.
As Census night approached on 10 August 2021, new features were added to the platform’s design and capability, data transformations and reports. During the peak period of Census night, the platform also provided real-time monitoring of the performance of the online form.
Key leaders and decision-makers across the ABS were provided with powerful and timely insights about all aspects of the Census collection, facilitating fast, accurate decision-making for allocating resources, and clear monitoring of the progress of the Census. It proved to be a valuable tool for a successful 2021 Australian Census.
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The Australian Bureau of Statistics is an agency of the Australian Government responsible for statistical collection and analysis, including a 5-yearly population census across the fourth largest collection area geography in the world.
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