Big data may build better profile of Australians: Statistician

Information could be used in future censuses, says Jonathan Palmer

Location information from mobile phones could lead to more dynamic pictures of population counts according to an Australian statistician.

Speaking at a Teradata summit in Sydney, Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) deputy Australian statistician, Jonathan Palmer, told delegates that this may enhance census information in the future.

For example, Palmer said he was interested in movements of people captured by mobile phone positions, how people interact through phone conversations and what people are buying on the Internet.

“The really interesting sources of big data are largely in private hands. If ABS was able to access privately-held data, location information from cell phones could lead to more dynamic pictures of population counts,” he said.

Big data might also be used to determine the state of the Australian economy. For example, ABS could forecast the impact of a factory getting closed.

“How many people have a skill set or employment relationship [with the factory] which is likely to be affected? If we could identify the skills people have and support available to them, intervention could be much better,” he said.

However, Palmer said that information collected by the ABS is kept confidential and its goal is to inform Australians about people in general, not individuals.

“We will need to demonstrate that we are unlocking public value without trampling over private interests.”

He added that it could help companies build up a better idea of their customers.

“Big data is not representative because not everyone tweets or updates their Facebook status about where they live. We can play a role in calibrating that data and make unrepresentative data fit for purpose.”

Follow Hamish Barwick on Twitter: @HamishBarwick

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