How the Australian Bureau of Statistics has been using data to respond to COVID-19

By Shannon Jenkins

Monday May 4, 2020

David Gruen

The Australian Bureau of Statistics has “transformed” the way it operates to provide decision-makers with current and relevant data so it can better navigate uncertain economic terrain in the coming months.

In a briefing to the Australian Business Economists last week, Australian Statistician David Gruen explained how the ABS has been responding to the coronavirus pandemic.

He said senior ABS staff first met up to discuss how they could provide governments and the community with more up-to-date statistics on the impacts of the spread of COVID-19 on February 28.

“Looking back, that day was the calm before the storm,” he said.

“Events overseas … as well as the PM declaring the previous day that the world would soon be entering a pandemic, were making it clear that the COVID-19 storm was coming and, when it arrived, it would likely generate enormous disruption to our way of life and our economy.

“We were in a unique position to provide enormous value by collecting and publishing near real-time information about how individuals and businesses were responding to the rapidly changing circumstances. So, planning for new, rapid-turnaround outputs was one of the first parts of the ABS response that began in late February.”

The ABS had made several changes to reduce the spread of the virus by mid-March, and had paused some activities to “free up resources” for the collection of pandemic-related data. Measures were also put in place to keep things moving if infection rates of ABS staff rose to critical levels.

A taskforce was also created to address emerging policy questions and data needs in response to the pandemic.

Gruen noted ABS staff transitioned to working from home arrangements fairly smoothly, due to existing flexible working arrangements which incorporated large-scale teleworking capacity.

The data

So far, the ABS has published extended analysis of short-term visitor arrivals to Australia, the flow of international students into the states and territories, and additional labour force data.

Confidentialised microdata for Australian businesses has also been made available for researchers to produce tables, graphs and maps, Gruen said.

During its early response to COVID-19, the ABS released interactive employment distribution maps. They were initially given to the federal Treasury department before they were made public in March.

Gruen said the maps have supported a regional assessment of the potential impacts of the coronavirus on employment. For example, one map revealed the distribution of all employed persons aged 50 years and older across areas of Brisbane and Sydney before social distancing measures were implemented.

“The map shows that Sydney had a much higher concentration of areas where older workers live – those who might be at greater risk from COVID-19. Images like this help decision makers target policy and strategies according to local conditions and risks,” Gruen explained.

Other maps released in early April showed small area modelling of chronic health conditions, which could be used to identify at-risk communities. Gruen said the NSW government has been using similar aggregated, small area data to plan more localised methods of COVID-19 containment.

The ABS has also released a range of preliminary data related to COVID-19, Gruen noted. Preliminary retail trade, for example, has “backed up stories of some consumers stockpiling for the pandemic”.

“It revealed a doubling in monthly turnover for products such as toilet and tissue paper, flour, rice and pasta,” he said.

“As anticipated, sales were also strong in retail industries selling items related to home offices, while falls occurred in cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services, which were particularly affected by social distancing measures.”

Meanwhile, the ABS and the Australian Taxation Office have been discussing the possibility of collecting information from the Single Touch Payroll system — used by businesses to report to the ATO information about wages, superannuation and tax payments for their employees.

”The arrival of the coronavirus meant that providing public access to this rich vein of detailed near real-time information became an urgent priority,” Gruen said.

Data published by the two entities has revealed the number of employees in paying jobs fell by 6%, and total wages paid by businesses fell by 6.7% between March 14 and April 4. The accommodation and food services industry saw the largest fall in the number of employees in paying jobs (down by 25.6%), followed by the arts and recreation services industry (down by 18.7%).

Surveys reveal COVID-19 impact

Over the past two months, the ABS has introduced two new rapid-response surveys.

The first survey measured the impacts of the pandemic on 1200 businesses. It found that — before Stage 1 social distancing restrictions were implemented — 49% of businesses had experienced an immediate adverse impact as a result of COVID-19, and 86% anticipated future adverse impacts.

After the announcement of the Stage 2 social distancing restrictions, and on the day the JobKeeper package was announced, the survey found nine in ten businesses were operating with significant operational changes. It found 55% had temporarily reduced staff work hours, while 52% had changed staff work locations, including working from home.

The results from the third cycle of the Business Impacts of COVID-19 Survey will be published on May 4.

Another survey of more than 1000 households found that social distancing restrictions were being taken seriously, with 98% of respondents reporting they were keeping their distance from other people. Many respondents said they were avoiding public spaces and events (88%), and cancelling social gatherings (87%).

The survey also found people aged 65 years and over were self-isolating more than younger age groups.

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