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COVID-19 portal success prompts 'whole new approach' from Stats NZ

Stats NZ was a quiet star of NZ's COVID-19 response, delivering real-time data to aid decision-making
  • Rob O'Neill (New Zealand Reseller News)
  • 09 June, 2020 08:01
James Shaw - Statistics Minister

James Shaw - Statistics Minister

Statistics NZ is rethinking its approach to data delivery after the success of its COVID-19 portal and a pause in the development on an earlier data portal effort.

Two months ago, government statistician and chief executive of Statistics New Zealand Mark Sowden made a decision to take down a Māori language version of Indicators Aotearoa New Zealand, which was being developed as a source of measures for New Zealand’s well-being.

The move was prompted initially by the discovery of inconsistencies information being delivered between the English and Māori language versions of the site.

"To be honest, I don’t know when it’s going to be back up, Sowden told Parliament's governance and administration committee earlier this month. 

"So we’re now considering the Indicators Aotearoa website in light of the COVID-19 portal that we developed. That’s a slightly different technology and a different approach. 

"So we’re actually having a whole new look at the Indicators Aotearoa website in light of the technology we used and the approach we used around the COVID-19 portal." 

Statistics would be putting the versions back up and addressing the inconsistencies identified, but it also intended to take a whole new approach informed by lessons learned during the rollout of the COVID-19 portal.

"I can’t tell you whether we’re going to end up with one or two websites," Sowden said. 

"I don’t know what that looks like yet. But, basically, we’ve really been taken by the technology and the approach we used around the COVID-19 portal."

He added that work on Indicators Aotearoa had been paused until 1 July last year anyway, due to budgetary constraints, until after 1 July this year.

Stats NZ told Reseller News The COVID-19 data portal was developed by its own analysts seeking to find an innovative approach to compiling and presenting the data needed to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis. 

This work started on 8 April  and was released just 16 days later on the 24 April with data is updated daily.

"The great benefit of the portal is the ability to add and display new indicators quickly and easily," a spokesperson said.

"We have added many new indicators since it was launched, for example weekly deaths, job-seeker benefits, and transport data. We expect to add more indicators in coming weeks."

Key to that effort has been the creation of a scalable service that can ingest data in a range of formats and transform it into a single a configurable format that can be consistently, easily and quickly used by users and developers. 

Data transformation was done in the R data analytics language and displayed by a Shiny app, an R package that makes it easy to build interactive web apps straight from R which has been widely used by Stats NZ in recent years.

"The portal and ingest service is therefore more an example of the innovative use of technology and the dedication of a few key analysts than it is the application of very new or emerging technologies," Stats NZ said.

The environment and the approach to delivering Indicators Aotearoa NZ was very different.  

The framework and indicators were developed over a year consulting with the public and key stakeholders identifying, and agreeing, what the indicators worth measuring would be. 

The front end was designed as a more stable and robust product – and tested with selected users.

It was built, with  the help of contractors where needed, in Silverstripe and Highcharts. 

However, now the innovative approach and success of the COVID-19 portal will be used to inform the development of Indicators Aotearoa when development recommences.

The committee also asked about the progress of Stats NZ's commercial arm, Data Ventures, which sits in the middle of the data chain obtaining datasets from other organisations and turning them into useful products.

"It’s actually one of the really good stories about how something that we had developed and innovated in one part of Government, we could suddenly re-task and see other uses for," said Minister of Statistics James Shaw. 

"The population movements tool that they developed in conjunction with the telcos last year—you know, at the time, we were saying: ‘Well, that’ll be useful for things like traffic flow planning and telecommunications infrastructure planning, that kind of thing.

"But, actually, if you’re in the extraordinary situation that we’ve been in over the past few months, where we had a state of national emergency and we had to go into lockdown, we were able to use that tool to say, “Well, to what extent are people observing it?” 

"And it turns out that the people of Tai Tokerau are the most well-behaved in the entire country when it comes to observing things like a state of national [emergency].

"And I say this somewhat ashamedly, but Wellingtonians, as it turns out, are rubbish. Although, my view of that is because we had access to parks and could go for walks without necessarily having to drive."

Data Ventures had also been useful in helping to develop the COVID-19 data portal and other timely information, Shaw added.

Shaw said Stats NZ had delivered near real-time data that had supported the "fast and effective decision making that has made New Zealand’s response to the pandemic such a success."