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More backroom tremors for census IT system

Census passcodes are arriving in the mail, advertisements are running and field staff are knocking on doors. But in the rush towards March 6, the census’ IT team hit yet another serious problem which was only resolved last week. David Williams reports.

The red flag went up just before Christmas. According to the December 15 weekly “dashboard” for the census IT programme – released to Newsroom under the Official Information Act – there was a serious new issue.

An unnamed New Zealand company providing scanning software, used to scan census forms and send the data to Statistics New Zealand’s system, missed its deadline. As Christmas loomed, there were worries about the proposed new delivery date, at the end of January.

That was not in time for what is called “end-to-end testing” timelines, put in place to ensure “the solution will work in time” for the census, held on March 6.

An external project manager was appointed immediately.

“That was a sensible and cautious thing to do,” the head of New Zealand’s 2018 census, Denise McGregor, told Newsroom yesterday. While scanning paper forms isn’t part of the main IT system – responsible for funnelling data and for directing field staff to addresses up and down the country – McGregor said “it was still a serious issue, which is why it was red-flagged”.

The external project manager tasked with fixing the scanning problems enacted twice-weekly meetings with the company in January. Meanwhile a “smoke test” to see how data would travel between the two systems identified defects.

Final system testing was scheduled for February 5, about a month before the census.

January 19’s dashboard comment on the problem used plain language: “The timeline has no contingency and will be managed on a daily basis.”

Major headaches

Those running this year’s $121 million “digital-first” census have faced several big headaches, not least of which the 2016 Kaikoura quake, which severely damaged Stats NZ’s Wellington headquarters. Then, last April, field testing was disrupted by a state of emergency in flood-hit Whanganui.

In December, as Stats NZ started grappling with its scanning software problem, Newsroom was reporting on two other major problems – problems with software from US giant Salesforce, used to manage field staff work, and a potential paper form shortfall.

(There was also a glitch with directing phone calls from Stats NZ to the census communications team. Asked what the issue was, McGregor said: “I don’t know. It’s over now, it’s been solved long ago, it was not a big issue.”)

IT systems are crucial to the Government’s aim for 70 percent of responses to this year’s census to be done online – compared to 2013’s online response of 34 percent. Eighty percent of people will be posted online codes, as opposed to getting a knock on the door from field staff handing out paper forms. That means 4000 fewer field staff will be taken on and less money will be spent collecting and processing forms. That’s assuming the 70 percent target is met.

“If we get under that, then we will have to have more paper, we’ll have to have more people in the field,” McGregor said. She added: “We currently are managing our contingency within our appropriation.”

Contingencies aren’t just about IT systems, of course, they’re also about planning for natural disasters and bad weather. This week was a prime example. Ex-Cyclone Gita’s lashing meant 175 field officers in various parts of the country were stood down, had late starts or finished early on Tuesday. A further 140 South Island staff were disrupted yesterday.

“We envisage that any time lost through this weather event will be quickly made up,” McGregor says.

“There’s always a level of tension in something of the scale of census.” – Chris Buxton

The census internet collection system is now live and more than 3000 electronic forms had been received by yesterday morning. However, Chris Buxton, Stats NZ’s chief digital officer, told Newsroom that final, “end-to-end” testing on the scanning software issue only finished last week.

“What we’d found was that actually from a performance perspective, based on how many number of forms we anticipate to come through, the system wasn’t able to cope with that load.”

The scanning was fine, he said – the problem was the software company’s integration with Stats NZ’s back-end systems; their ability to pass data accurately.

Buxton – who had to be reminded by McGregor that an external project manager was brought in to help fix the scanning issue – put a positive gloss on such a problem landing just before Christmas. “There’s always nerves because census is the biggest operation that we do,” he said. “I don’t think we were particularly worried [in January], but there’s always a level of tension in something of the scale of census.”

Integration issues with software systems and defects are expected in major, complex operations, Buxton said – that’s why testing is done.

Can the Government claw money back from its contractor for missing its deadline? McGregor: “That’s commercially sensitive and, sorry, we can’t answer that.”

That’s also the reason, she confirmed, why Stats NZ won’t name the firm involved.

In terms of privacy and data security concerns, Buxton said “routing challenges” means there’s the potential for data to go offshore when anyone entering anything on the internet. But census information will be encrypted from the time it’s entered until it reaches Stats NZ’s database. The only people who get to see the unencrypted data are people with a statistical need to access it. “And that’s actually very few people within Statistics NZ,” McGregor said.

Buxton is also bullish about the census website’s ability to perform under pressure, based on the experience of other countries’ census experience. All performance targets were exceeded during testing, he said, “some of them quite significantly”. Using government-wide resources, the website will also have the ability to increase capacity at short notice, if needed.

“We’re going into this operation with pretty high confidence in the internet collection capability and what it’s actually going deliver for us.”

As to whether the Government can achieve its 70 percent online goal, that’s now up to the public.