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Australian Census in chaos as online system crashes

For all its analytical powers, and assurances to the contrary, the Australian Bureau of Statistics delivers a census night that crashed early and never came back to life.

Seamus Byrne Editor, Australia & Asia
Seamus Byrne is CNET's Editor for Australia and Asia. At other times he'll be found messing with apps, watching TV, building LEGO, and rolling dice. Preferably all at the same time.
Seamus Byrne
2 min read

For all the concerns over privacy and data retention, it was the simpler issue of failing to adequately prepare the online submission service that has brought the 2016 Australian Census to its knees.

Social media has been flooded with complaints of an unresponsive Census 2016 website. Simply being unable to reach the website was the primary complaint. But for some, the problems came during their form submission process, losing everything when the website stopped working amid filling out the Census, or even during the final submission.

Census 2016 login failure
Enlarge Image
Census 2016 login failure

The Australian Census spent most of census night doing the thing Census bosses promised would never happen.

Screenshot / Seamus Byrne

In recent days the Australian Bureau of Statistics has assured various media outlets and the public that it was very prepared for tonight's shift to an online focus. Census General Manager Chris Liberi believed the system was not going to buckle under the pressure of the entire nation's Census response efforts.

"We have load-tested it at 150 per cent of the number of people we think are going to be on it on Tuesday for eight hours straight and it didn't look like flinching," he told news.com.au.

But as families finished dinner and started trying to log in, the complaints erupted. At first, in the face of outraged complaints and screenshots across social media, the @ABSCensus Twitter account told people that "local technical issues" could be at fault at the user end, or that "the website and online form are operating smoothly as expected" and they should simply try again.

At 8.38pm, @ABSCensus finally accepted defeat.

Later, at 10.59pm, it made the astonishing statement that the service would not return tonight at all.

And with that, Census night was over.

Big questions will be asked over how they could get it so wrong. Who will be held responsible? When Liberi said "we think" in their estimates of usage, how wrong were they? Or did the technical architecture buckle at precisely the wrong moment? IBM was awarded a $9.6 million contract to run the hosting operations for the Census. A firm called Revolution IT was awarded a number of contracts related to load testing to ensure systems were prepared for the capacity expectations of millions of households needing to log in to a single service on a single night.

The blame game will no doubt begin tomorrow in earnest.