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Friday, 06 January 2017 11:03

Australia's big data push belongs in amateur hour Featured

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The Australian Government's ongoing Centrelink bungle is an indication of the fact that an obsession over the use of big data to balance the budget and the ability to do so skillfully are oceans apart.

Malcolm Turnbull's ministers appear to be a bunch of rank amateurs when it comes to technology, with the Centrelink bungle being just the latest indicator of their techno-incompetence.

For those who have been away, the Centrelink office sent tens of thousands of letters to people before Christmas, telling them that their earnings were at variance with what they had declared to the Australian Taxation Office.

They were given up to three weeks to explain, or face an adverse assessment and have to pay a recovery fee of 10%. The extent of inefficiency in government ranks can be judged by the fact that Human Services Minister Alan Tudge himself expressed surprise when told of this recovery fee.

Some letters dealt with payments made six years ago and even earlier. The Centrelink website itself asks people to keep pay slips for six months.

Those who were able to get onto the my.gov website — always a touch-and-go affair — and enter the correct information did not escape as they were often told they still owed money and ordered to pay up even if it was disputed.

This classic case of being found guilty until proven innocent came about because of the government's obsession with using data to find out who was drawing more welfare money than the amount to which they were entitled.

But the automated mechanism — no doubt conceived by some IT consultant who makes an excellent living off your taxes and mine — was poorly written. It looked at total annual earnings and calculated the average fortnightly pay based on that lumpsum.

Anyone receiving money from Centrelink is entitled to that amount only if they earn less than a certain sum each fortnight. And amounts are calculated week to week to judge one's eligibility to get that money.

For example, if I was receiving $100 a fortnight and my weekly pay from other sources had to be below $200 in order to get that $100, then I would lose the $100 for any fortnight in which I earned about $200 from other sources.

But if I earned $4000 from other sources in one fortnight and $10 the next fortnight, I would not lose the Centrelink payment for the second week.

That's not the extent of the bungle over which Social Services Minister Christian Porter is now trying to spin differently.

If an employer's name was spelt even slightly differently in the ATO's records, then this great automated method assumed it was a different employer. Conclusion? Said man/woman is receiving undeclared income.

So if I received $500 from iTWire in one fortnight, and $500 from ITWire — note that there is just one capital letter difference between the two spellings — the next fortnight, Centrelink's automated method would record that as payment from two employers, one of which I had not declared. Genius.

ABN or ACN numbers could have been checked – but then perhaps that's a method only lowly humans would use. (A detailed explanation of the Centrelink method to assess income is detailed here.)

Lest we forget, the census bungle last year, the bid to make it a mostly online affair, was also driven by the desire to profit from data, in this case the personal data of Australian residents. Nobody needs reminding of the extent to which that was bungled.

The NBN, the metadata retention scheme, the release of personal data that could be easily identified... the bungles are legion. But Turnbull and his minions still rush headlong into the new world of big data, driven by neoliberal thinking that every function of government can be run at a profit.

There is a mistaken belief in many government circles that an inefficient operation — in the case cited above, Centrelink's inability to monitor welfare recipients — will suddenly become efficient the moment things are digitised.

The reality could not be more different. As those with even basic common sense are aware, what results is that the inefficiency is magnified.

A little learning is a dangerous thing. Sadly, Australia's Government, headed by the agile and innovative Turnbull, appears to be unaware of this.

Update, 8 January: corrected to reflect the fact that Centrelink payments are made each fortnight, and not weekly.

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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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