The Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey wasn't just carried out using bits of paper deposited into mailboxes. A significant number of voters chose to fill in their form online. There were just a few weeks from then the government announced the survey to the survey period commencing. And, as the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) was conducting the survey, that meant new systems had to be developed and deployed very quickly - something government agencies aren't well known for.
Andrew Phillips, the AWS Public Sector Country Manager for ANZ, told me it's a fallacy that government isn't able to move fast when it comes to deploying technology. The sales cycle, he says, is similar the public and private sectors overall.
"In today's age, when a ministerial order will happen quickly and come down to agencies very quickly, the timelines to get things done can be very short," he said.
This is what happened with the postal survey. Most people surprised that the ABS, rather than the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), was tasked with administering the survey. It had just four weeks to figure out how to get to all the people who, during the survey period, weren't going to be able to access the paper-based survey and would access the survey online. That meant scaling a system appropriately, using traditional development methods, was challenging.
Learning from the past
The ABS' new CIO, Steve Hamilton, was able to use his experience in getting the MyTax platform up and running, and dealing with the tax office's storage failures, from his time at the Australian Tax Office (ATO) and the lessons learned by the ABS from the census fiasco to come up with a solution that could scale and be deployed quickly.
Hamilton called AWS in, along with other parties in an accelerated tender process, to solve the problem by using government procurement protocols that the ATO had used as well as engaging the Australian Signals Directorate to ensure that all the security considerations were also managed.
Within a week of choosing AWS, Phillips and his team sat with the ABS' team to work out how to put together the system that was needed.
"We knew that if we were bound by things like ITIL and traditional operating systems, and even virtual machines, we were not going to be able to get it done in that period of time. Also, we wouldn't have been able to ensure it was done for the lowest cost possible as we would have had to build it for the highest end," said Phillips.
Not knowing how many people would use the system was an issue. While the system could be turned off straight after the survey process ended, the ABS' best estimates were that between 250,000 and a million people would cast a vote in the online version fo the survey. but, as anyone could use the online system, it was possible all 16 million potential voters could go online.
"The lesson that they learned from census was don't build systems where you have to guess capacity. Build systems that have near infinite capacity built into them," added Phillips.
That led to the decision to build on serverless technology.
All of this was decided in just a few days with the system architected and ready for stress testing several days before the offical go-live date on 12 September 2017.
Not knowing how many people were going to use the online component of the survey meant that traditional approaches to stress testing we not going to work. While the ABS' best estimates anticipated up to a million online users, it was possible that the real number could be ten or more times what was expected. Phillips advised the ABS to stress test for 16 million people so they could be assured they'd be ready for almost anything.
"That was one of the learnings from census," he said.
And because of the chosen architecture, Phillips said this testing cost dollars - not thousands of dollars.
As well as the computer systems, the ABS' support systems needed to be ready for the flood of calls expected throughout the survey. Phillips told me the ABS also used AWS Connect. This allowed them to create an IVR (interactive voice response) system that gave call centre staff some information about inbound callers so they could assist with queries faster.
This coped with call volumes that were six times greater than any other previous call-in day the ABS had experienced.
The system the ABS deployed to support the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey costs nothing today as it's off. The system the ABS deployed to support the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey costs nothing today as it's off and all the data collected has been removed. The collection systems no longer cost the ABS and therefore the taxpayer, anything.
Phillips said that while the cost to the ABS and therefore revenue for Amazon was quite low, it sits high on the list of projects that give Phillips great satisfaction because of its social impact.