Census – vital, but confidence has been eroded

It’s Census night.

Normally it’s relatively uncontroversial, but this time it’s different — a number of concerns have been raised by people, especially those interested in privacy and data security.

Some of the issues raised include:

Names and addresses to be kept for four years. This obviously creates a risk of privacy breaches if the data is compromised. It can happen, many organisations have suffered breaches, but you can only hope the ABS is taking every possible step so that it doesn’t.

Some argue that’s a red herring anyway – the linking to other data is what can really compromise your privacy, because the “Statistical Linkage Key” is likely to be able to be tracked back to individuals.

The definition of ‘census’ is “an official count”. I actually want to stand up and be counted. But only counted; not named or profiled or data-matched or data-linked, or anything else. The privacy risks of doing anything else are just too great.

Anna Johnston, a former deputy privacy commissioner of NSW.

It’s online by default. I think this was a logical move; like the ATO, they’re looking for ways to speed up processing, improve accuracy and cut costs. (From memory I did it online last time.)

The logon came through the snail mail. Obviously not as secure as it being handed to you by a Census worker.

If you stop halfway through, apparently it sends you a password so you can later resume, as plain text via email. That’s a pretty silly security slip-up. (It seems the workaround is to make sure you do it in one go.)

The web site is enabled for old insecure protocols such as SHA-1. This can make possible “man in the middle” attacks that could intercept your data, but presumably only old browsers that don’t support SHA-2 would be vulnerable.

They probably should have just used SHA-2 exclusively, given we’re talking about very old (15+ year) browsers and operating systems (older than Windows XP), which probably have lots of other vulnerabilities as well, because they’re no longer supported.

(As far as I can see, using a recent web browser gets you onto a site that uses SHA-2, so it should be okay? Besides, Stilgherrian says it’s only the Census help web site that is vulnerable.)

Not so much a privacy concern, but apparently you can’t enter accented names. That’s just silly stuff. Perhaps that’s linked to them wanting to generate the Statistical Linkage Key partly from your name, but it seems odd given we’re a multicultural society.

How serious are the privacy issues? As a friend, who is an expert in cyber security, noted:

…Realistically, the ABS are the least of our worries. MyGov is way way way worse, and there’s no pitchforks in the streets about MyGov.

Hmmmm!

Confidence

Even if you dismiss the issues as minor or not worth worrying about, what’s more annoying and disappointing is they seem to have shaken the confidence of enough people that the results may be in doubt.

Several senators are refusing to fill in their names. Former privacy commissioners and a former Australian Statistician (eg ABS head) are objecting. Apparently some people have booked overseas flights to be out of the country tonight so they can legally avoid filling it in.

You’ll always have some paranoid people who won’t fill it in, or who mess it up. But this time it seems different.

Accurate census information is important.

The Howard government made most (all?) Census information free (previously much of it attracted a fee to access), and lots of organisations rely on it, for planning and for lobbying.

For instance PTUA and similar groups have often used census data to show the reality of transport in our cities, data to counter the road lobby’s rhetoric that we need more tarmac.

Census data showed that at most, 6% of journeys to work in Melbourne are along the alignment of the proposed East West Link tollway, compared to 45% of people working close to home, and 20% working in the CBD, showing EWL was never going to be a cure for traffic congestion in the area.

And it’s the same in all sorts of fields.

So anyway, I’ll fill in tonight’s census, but I’m not very happy about how it’s being run this time.

I just hope the data coming out of it isn’t fatally flawed, that the ABS’s promises on privacy are fulfilled, and that they think very carefully about how they run the next one.

PS:

Update Friday 12/8/2016: Problems with the web site distracted from privacy concerns. Many people had issues filling it in online. First capacity (and allegedly a Denial Of Service attack) stopped people using it on Tuesday, Census night. It wasn’t until Thursday that the site was running again, and stupidly they blocked non-Australian DNS servers from seeing it, so people like me who use Google’s DNS couldn’t get to it.

By Friday when I got back to try and do it, my iPad (not using Google’s DNS, and meeting the minimum requirements of Safari on iOS 7) couldn’t make it work either. Eventually I completed it using a laptop. It really shouldn’t have to be this hard.

I still don’t know whether a temporary train replacement bus counts as a train or a bus. Physically it’s a bus, but statistically, isn’t it part of the train service?

A bit of pedantry

I can be a bit of a pedant, so this photo caption in Saturday’s Age caught my eye:

Picture of Patrick McCaughey in The Age 23/7/2016

“Former NGV director Patrick McCaughey” pictured in 1986 — so was he the former NGV director back then?

No — the article text makes it clear he was the director in 1986.

There’s a simple way of conveying this in the text, and it’s not just me — it turns out National Geographic has a style guide which recommends:

Do not use former when reference is made to something done while a person held a position; then may be used

(My emphasis)

Not to single out The Age here — I’ve noticed “former” being used when “then” is more appropriate in a lot of stories from various media outlets recently.

Interestingly I couldn’t find anything about this in the online style guides from The Guardian, The Economist, Griffith University, or the BBC.

Fairfax has its own style guide, and there’s also the Australian Commonwealth Printing Office style manual — but neither of these are online. I might try and hunt these down in a library.

Perhaps only NatGeo and I care about this?

But the meaning of words matter. They should be chosen carefully.

Regardless of my pedantry, the article about the 1986 theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman, and the accompanying account of then Chief Conservator Thomas Dixon, are a great read. I wonder if we’ll ever know what actually happened.

See something newsworthy? Get the footage!

OK, so you’ve seen a big problem, and since you carry a very capable camera in your phone everywhere you go, you’ve decided you want to get footage of it so the world can find out about it.

Great! This really helps activists, and can get problems fixed.

When you’re filming or snapping photos, here are some tips to consider, some based on a chat with a Channel 7 journo following a previous foray into this. Obviously these thoughts are in the context of my particular campaigning interests, but hopefully they’re useful more broadly.

Mind you, many of these pointers are also relevant to simply getting photos and video of any newsworthy event, not necessarily just one that highlights a problem to be fixed.

Show the problem. Show the scale of the issue; some context. A crowded train doorway on its own isn’t a problem. The entire carriage being packed, and people giving up and waiting on the platform is a problem.

Make notes about what it is you’re showing, and post those (even if brief) with the material. Are we looking at a tram that’s packed because the three before it were cancelled (so the problem is service reliability) or it’s packed despite everything running smoothly (so the problem is service frequency and the number of trams)? Why is this significant? Is it part of a wider problem?

Don’t mislead. If you’re aiming to get a problem fixed, your photos and video are only part of the evidence — it may be what sparks further investigation, but fundamentally you’ll be wasting your time (and quite possibly set your cause back) if it turns out you implied something which didn’t really happen.

Don’t be creepy or irritate people — when I’m trying to film packed PT, I’m not trying to film individuals, I’m filming crowds. Occasionally I’ll get stares, and I’d be happy to explain what I was doing if ever asked, but do I think there’s a way to film in a crowd while not lingering on specific people, and not giving the impression of creepiness.

If possible, be prepared. Sometimes things happen spontaneously, and it might be a struggle to whip out your phone camera in time and snap a pic or shoot some video. Other things are regular events. For the summer timetable crowding, I knew it was happening every day, so took along a proper camera and positioned myself at the end of the carriage to be able to get good shots.

Be safe and considerate. Don’t do anything silly to get a good shot, and don’t get in the way.

For videos

Hold that shot. You’re aiming for footage in a news report, not a music video, so don’t wave the camera around too much. Hold it still and steady, and get shots of at least 5 seconds each, preferably a bit longer.

Vary the angles. For television footage, they’ll need to chop up your video so it works well for viewers. Be sure to provide a few different angles. For January’s crowded train footage I included a shot through the end-of-carriage door into the next carriage. It was a bit arty, but worked well — they used it — and helped show context as well — it wasn’t just my carriage that was sardine-like.

Video is, of course, better for TV, but photos also sometimes get a run on TV, and online and in newspapers. A mix may be good, if you can manage it!

Don’t talk over it. If you’re trying to be a reporter, rather than a witness (if you know what I mean) then don’t talk over the vision. The noise from the event itself may be more important than a commentary, which can be added later. That said, spontaneous commentary can work okay.

Finally… but critically…

Shoot video in landscape. It seems to be way too easy to forget that whether it’s on the TV news or Youtube, most video is better viewed landscape, not portrait. Turn your phone 90 degrees before you start shooting – it makes much better use of the camera’s resolution.

The very worst crime in this category I ever saw was someone had filmed something off a widescreen television in portrait mode. For heaven’s sake, isn’t it blindingly obvious you’d turn your phone to match the TV screen?

Turns out there’s an iPhone application to force filming in landscape, but of course the people who most need this type of app will never install it.

More on this topic in this amusing video:

Where to take the footage?

Okay, this is easy for me because I’ve built up contacts in the PT world.

But all media outlets these days look for contributions, because good photos and video are invaluable. Contact the newsroom at your preferred outlet, explain what you filmed and why you think it’s important.

For a story to get a good run, it may be better to initially give it to only one outlet unless it’s utterly explosive (perhaps literally).

And be prepared to be interviewed/quoted, though depending what it is, they may be prepared to take it anonymously, or at least not identify who had the camera.

Does this work? Do things get fixed?

A picture tells a thousand words, but it’s also a thousand times more convincing to sceptical authorities who are likely to deny there’s a problem.

I suspect it’s rare to see a direct correlation from this kind of publicity to a real fix (as in New Year’s Eve), but often strong media coverage can be the thing that gets the ball rolling.

The 2006 weekend train overcrowding footage highlighted that 3-car trains were no longer adequate on weekends. Apparently this was news to Connex. Perhaps it would have happened anyway, but a subsequent upgrade led to almost all weekend trains running as full 6-car sets.

Why is the government on the back foot over White Night public transport? Partly because the media picked up a PTUA press release based on photos posted on Twitter on Saturday night, some of which were posted in response to a request for people to snap them.

Happy hunting!

Anybody got extra tips? Leave a comment!

Names from the past

The neurosurgeon attacked at Footscray Hospital was Dr Michael Wong, aged 43. I went to school with a Michael Wong; presumably he’d be 43.

Digging around, I haven’t found any other detail to confirm or deny it’s the same bloke (there are tons of Michael Wongs, even just in Melbourne, and my usual method of trawling social media networks didn’t help), though I note he studied with a Professor Andrew Kaye – name of another fellow student at Melbourne High School.

Either way, I hope Dr Wong makes a full and speedy recovery.

Update 12/7/2014: Today’s Age has an article on the neurosurgeon — it’s inspiring stuff, well worth a read. He has recovered fully. The article also notes he migrated from Hong Kong when he was 18, so he’s not the same Michael Wong I knew.

Christmas wrap-up

Christmas Day was largely spent with family, eating too much, playing with a giant cushion-like water balloon (which burst when, tragically, nobody was watching/filming) and swapping presents.

Our haul this time around included a Wii U, which should be fun, and for my own personal stash I got some great movies on Blu-ray (Help, and The World’s End), a rather nice framed original artwork, an excellent big book (The Beatles — All The Songs — great for dipping into and reading about the origins of their songs, something which has interested me greatly recently), and a voucher for MTC theatre tickets.

I was pondering if the video game console manufacturers beef up their online servers at Christmas to handle millions of consoles needing software updates, and lots of people signing up for the first time. Perhaps they don’t beef them up enough — Nintendo had problems over the Christmas period, and had to partially shut down their eShop service.

It wasn’t all good news in our house, either: our Christmas tree fell over on Christmas Day, and will need replacing. We already knew the lights were going to need replacing. Maybe they can be procured at a discount during the post-Christmas sales period?
Christmas tree fallen over

After Christmas festivities were over for the afternoon, I went on a PT joyride. Services were free, and unlike the UK where virtually the whole system shuts down, runs a normal Sunday timetable. There were quite a few people touching-on/off their Myki cards — hopefully they were charged nothing, as advertised… obviously not advertised widely enough. But wouldn’t it be good customer service to open all the fare gates? Most at Caulfield were closed.
Christmas Day at Caulfield station
(Of course, the biggest problem preventing more people using the system on Christmas Day is lack of services. Trains and trams were okay, but with most buses only hourly, it’s very self-limiting, even with free rides.)

On Boxing Day I went farming, where I helped to count sheep, and didn’t fall asleep once.
Sheep

I also learnt to speak sheep. “Baaaaaaaa!” (Thanks Kate for the photo.)
Daniel tries speaking sheep. "Baaaa!"

I also managed to bang one of my toes on a metal chair leg, leaving me with a big bruise and pain when I walked, until both thankfully faded away about a day later. Here’s the bruise in its small, early stages. Scary colour to see on one of your toes.
Toe bruise

In Euroa we spotted this Stump People Nativity scene — very rural!
Stump people nativity scene, Euroa

Saw the second Hobbit movie on Saturday. Very good. Watched it in Gold Class at Southland — parked by the non-existent railway station.
Parked at Southland, next to the railway station

Hope you all had a good Christmas.