Geospatial’s role in government services

By on 31 May, 2022

© Lombard

Location data is playing an increasingly important role in enabling timely provision of public services.

One of the highlights of the presentations at the Locate22 conference, was the plenary address by Dr David Gruen, Australian Statistician and Agency Head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Dr Gruen gave the audience an insight into how government uses data, especially location data, in the provision of services. The ABS is collaborating with many other government entities to further the use of geospatial data and increase geospatial data literacy across the Australian public service (APS).

What follows is an edited version of Dr Gruen’s address, the full version of which can be found on the ABS website at

Building geospatial data capabilities

In the leadup to this conference, I was interviewed for a podcast [and] asked about my first exposure to geospatial data. While I have undoubtedly encountered geospatial information many times in my career, a memorable example was developing the Drought Map in response to the millennial drought. The Drought Map provided a visual representation of the critical geospatial aspects of the drought, as well as the relevant community and government services — a visual representation that was both compelling and easy to understand.

More generally, location data and insights provide critical inputs for governments, business and the community to improve decision making at the local level — for example to support first responders to an emergency event or in preparation for Australia’s high-risk weather season. These data also inform the best places to build critical services like hospitals, breast screening centres and health services for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. They help inform investment in critical infrastructure for economic development or climate risk mitigation, regional economic development strategies, and the delivery of employment and education services and programs.

The increase in the types and amount of data from both the public and private sectors has led to rising demands for information from users. We have responded with collaboration and partnerships across government and with the broader data community to build capability, tools, and processes to securely use, share, and understand data across the APS and with other governments.

In order to make them most of this rapid growth in data availability, we need to build workforce data skills and capability across the APS. Working on data used to be predominantly the domain of statisticians, economists, geospatial analysts and meteorologists. These days, and increasingly, most roles in the public service (and indeed in many spheres of work) require some level of data literacy.

The APS Data Profession is playing a major role uplifting workforce capability across the public service. [It was] launched in September 2020… [and] I was appointed Head of Profession, with the ABS as lead agency. At the centre of the work program is the Data Profession Strategy, which addresses the need to strengthen data capability overall, as well as build niche expertise for specialist data users — with geospatial being a prime example of a specialist skill. The Program aims to ensure the APS can attract, develop, and retain people with the data capabilities required to harness the unprecedented growth in the availability and value of data.

Late last year, we collaborated with Geoscience Australia, the National Recovery and Resilience Agency (NRRA), and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications to run a recruitment round specifically for geospatial specialists. This round attracted a strong field of 140 applicants from across industry and government, enabling us to fill over 20 geospatial specialist roles across the APS from operational analysts (APS5s) to Senior Managers (EL2s) with the majority coming from outside the APS. Given the success of this recruitment round, we plan to run a similar process toward the end of 2022.

We’ve also supported a mobility program of immersive learning experiences, which develops specialist data capability for APS employees through job swaps or secondments. So far, we have facilitated 13 short-term arrangements, where APS staff with data expertise work temporarily in another agency or department. Geospatial specialists have had a prominent place in these placements, with moves between ABS, Geoscience Australia, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Department of Agriculture Water and Environment, and the newly formed Australian Climate Service.

Australian Climate Service

[We] are an active partner in the Australian Climate Service, or ACS for short. The ACS was established last year as a virtual partnership, bringing together expertise and data from the ABS, the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia. The role of the ACS is to help the government and the community better understand the threats posed by natural disasters, including those that have been intensified by climate change, and limit their impacts now and in the future.

The ACS delivers data, expertise and advice to two customers: the newly formed NRRA and Emergency Management Australia (EMA). The most recent floods in Queensland and NSW saw ACS provide rapid response to data requests to help these agencies understand developments on the ground.

As part of the ACS effort, ABS provided data to NRRA within 24 hours to help them estimate the population adversely affected by the floods. The request came in on a Friday evening, to feed into an urgent briefing that weekend. We mobilised quickly, established data sharing agreements, prepared the data, and set up a secure transfer mechanism to get the data to NRRA by early Saturday afternoon.

The data was based on the ABS Population Grid, which combines the latest ABS regional population estimates with an enhanced version of the 2020 Geocoded National Address File (or G-NAF) from Geoscape Australia — who also provided quick agreement to share the enhanced data. ABS provided estimates of population at a Statistical Area 1 (SA1) level modelled down to the address level. NRRA then used these point estimates of population to dynamically estimate the number of people affected, by matching the points to flood extents as they moved and changed.

These are just a few examples of what the APS is currently doing with data to integrate different data sources, including geospatial data, to meet critical information needs. It is worth reflecting that not so long ago we couldn’t do these things because there was much less sharing of data between agencies; the supply of data was more limited because digital platforms had not reached a level of maturity that enabled the generation and integration of large amounts of data; and we didn’t have ready access to the required technology, such as cloud storage.

We’ve come a long way but undoubtedly, we can do much more provided we continue to lift data capability across the APS and in the wider community. The passage of the Data Availability and Transparency Act in March 2022 is also an important part of this journey and will be a key enabler supporting our future efforts.

ABS location capability uplift

Also of interest to this audience is the work we are doing at the ABS to uplift our own location information and geospatial technology capabilities. This has been in response to increased interest by our key customers in using location data and local area insights to identify and respond to economic, social and environmental challenges. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent natural disasters have further raised our customers’ interest in location data and analysis by demonstrating their invaluable role in responding to challenges with a significant geographical dimension.

The ABS has always provided much local and regional socio-economic data for use in location analysis. Our Population and Agricultural Censuses have been rich sources of data on local communities and for small population groups. New data from these censuses will be released later in 2022 — with the first tranche of Census data to be released on June 28. I suspect many of you are eagerly awaiting the new small area census data that will become available then.

The ABS is actively working to go beyond these traditional sources of socio-economic small area data. As a first step we created a new Location Insights Branch in June 2021. It is a virtual team that now includes over 70 staff located in Canberra, Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane and Hobart. This branch covers our new work on the Australian Climate Service and Digital Atlas. The new Location Insights Branch consolidates ABS’s existing location and geospatial programs — our statistical geography, geospatial analysis and technology area, our statistical address register, and our team that compiles a wealth of small area socio-economic statistics.

This branch will play a key role in ABS’s ambition to use the new data sources I mentioned earlier to deliver additional, timely location-based insights for our economy, people and environment. One example where we are already exploiting geospatial data is our use of Earth Observation (satellite) data products form Geoscience Australia and ABARES. We have used these data to compile and release the first detailed set of National Land Accounts, which will inform environmental decision making across Australia.

This branch will also feed these new and existing data sources into web-based data services for the Australian Climate Service and other users. A focus here is to ensure the data gets into the hands of the Emergency Management Australia and the National Recovery and Resilience Agency to enable better planning and preparedness for natural hazards and disaster response and recovery. In addition, we will be working with Geoscience Australia on the Digital Atlas program to increase the amount of local area socio-economic and geospatial data that is readily available and accessible for use in location analysis and decision making.

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