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What Can We Learn from the 2016 Census Crash?

We’re all aware of the calamity that was the 2016 Australian census. The annual survey, designed to collect a ‘snapshot’ of every Aussie household, turned digital for the first time this year and unfortunately for the ABS, their metamorphosis into modern times proved to be a bit of a meltdown.

When an estimated 16 million Australians attempted to log in to the website last night to fill out their online forms, they were met with an error message. This morning, we were told that the website was taken down after the detection of four ‘malicious’ attacks from foreign hackers, but according to digital maps showing live data visualisation of DDoS attacks around the globe, Australia was unaffected by any cyber-hacking last night.

With the site still down this morning and ABS publicists scurrying around trying to patch up the cluster-fudge, this begs the question: should the ABS have deviated from its standard paper format in the first place?

We are living in a digital world…

The decision to digitalise the survey isn’t that much of a surprise. Everything else (bar voting) can be done electronically now, so why shouldn’t something as major as the annual census be delivered on a digital platform too?

The ABS expected two-thirds of the population to complete their census forms online from the artificial glows of their smartphones, tablets and laptops. It’s convenient, it’s easy, and it’s highly appealing to our digitally-saturated, always-on-the-move society. Furthermore, there are tangible advantages: the ABS reported the move to the digital landscape would save taxpayers $100 million whilst also enabling an earlier release of census data.

But what are the risks of harnessing digital platforms?

Transitioning to the online arena always has its risks. The chief concerns involved with digitalising the census were twofold: firstly, people were worried about divulging their private and sensitive information to the digital vortex, and secondly, there were fears that the system would not be able to sustain the flood of users.

The ABS reassured Australians that going digital would be a safe and simple procedure, even forking out $500,000 on load testing servers to ensure the site wouldn’t crash. According to The Age, an ABS spokesperson said the site would be able to handle 1 million form submissions every hour – supposedly twice the capacity expected.

Regardless, the site still managed to crash, triggering mixed emotions of outrage and ridicule from the public as they took to social media to share their views.


How could all of this been avoided?

Essentially, load testing only encompasses one corner of the scope of performance tests. This case arguably exemplifies the importance of stress testing your website as well – in other words, seeing how a system can perform in worst-case scenarios (such as when maximum traffic figures are exceeded).

When it comes to website hosting, you always need to be prepared for the worst. Although the ABS invested loads of money into performance testing and the implementation of cyber security, it simply didn’t cover all bases – particularly in terms of disaster recovery planning and risk management.

Unfortunately, this was learnt the hard way.

By Trish O'Loughlin

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