Archive for April, 2019

ABS chief David Kalisch: Don’t take the employment numbers too seriously


The new head of the Bureau of Statistics, David Kalisch, wants several hundred million dollars from the government for an entire technology refresh. Photo: Rohan ThomsonThe new head of the Bureau of Statistics has a disarming reply to people who complain that the bureau’s unemployment data is unreliable. It’s to not rely on it.
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The January unemployment rate was 6.4 per cent. David Kalisch says the media and markets should focus instead on what the bureau calls its 95 per cent confidence interval, reporting that the bureau is confident the true rate is between 6 per cent and 6.8 per cent.

It would mean reporting that the total number of Australians in jobs did something between sliding 72,200 in January and climbing 45,800. It would mean reporting that the number of Australians unemployed did something between climbing 74,900 and falling 5900. It would mean acknowledging that the bureau’s employment estimates are even less accurate than is widely believed.

And he says even those broad ranges should not be treated as gospel. “You’ve got to look at whether the numbers are in line with other economic conditions. You’ve got to ask: does this number have a clear alignment with other economic indicators and expectations?”

Kalisch comes to the ABS from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare where he was chief executive. An economics graduate from the University of Adelaide, he has specialised in labour markets for the past three decades, working in Canberra for the Australian government and in Paris for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

He says there’s a good case for merging the ABS with the organisation he used to head,  a move that would bring the bureau more money, more staff and a more externally focused culture. It’s a “live issue” currently before the government.

His immediate priority is more money, a lot of it. When his predecessor as Australian Statistician Brian Pink left in January 2014, he wrote that the bureau had barely enough cash to “keep the lights on”.

Instead of replacing him promptly, the Treasurerand the Prime Minister’s offices tossed around options and deferred the decision until December when they finally gave the job to Kalisch, one of the original applicants from earlier in the year.

Without a chief executive for the best part of a year, the ABS faced a crisis over the arrest of a staff member who later pleaded guilty to insider trading in the labour force figures and a convulsion in the figures themselves, which in August reported an unlikely jump of 121,000 in employment followed in September by what would have been an extraordinary slide of 172,000 had the bureau not disowned the figure and substituted it with something less volatile.

Kalisch says he believes those problems are behind the survey, but he says people need to recognise that it is just that – a survey, of  about 26,000 households conducted once a month. “Any sense that the number is exactly whatever we report to the second decimal point is not an accurate use of those numbers,” he says.

But when asked whether the bureau’s numbers were accurate to even the first decimal place, he deflects the question and says it is “wisest to look at  the published confidence intervals”. They show the bureau is not always confident to first decimal place. They put the true unemployment rate at anywhere from  0.4 of a percentage point lower to 0.4 of a percentage point higher than the published rate. Kalisch says there’s nothing new in this. The range has always been wide.

The bigger problem with the figures is that they are still being prepared on outdated stand-alone computer systems. Some are up to 40 years old and can’t easily talk to each other. They are kept going by the idiosyncratic knowledge of the ABS staff who have nursed them for years. “To make things work requires a number of people with insights into that particular way of, operating,” Kalisch says, acknowledging that “knowledge retention is an issue”.

The calcified operating systems can’t quickly accede to demands to do things differently. They are built to produce things in the way they have always been produced, not to experiment.

Kalisch wants several hundred million dollars from the government for an entire technology refresh – almost as much, but not quite, as the ABS annual $312 million budget.

The project will take at least four years – Kalisch has been appointed for five – and will draw from the experience of other organisations, such as banks, that have had to retool while continuing to deliver their core service.

It will also provide an opportunity to change the nature of the bureau, from an organisation that primarily conducts its own surveys to one that makes greater use of outside data, curating it and turning it into useful products.

The bureau is already using supermarket scanner data to help compile the consumer price index, relying less on its own staff scanning shelves with clipboards.

His vision is for the bureau to mine so-called administrative data held in places such as the tax office, Medicare and education systems to deliver products that tell us things we don’t yet know, such as how a child progresses through the school system, and perhaps how that child gets ill along the way.

These days the ABS is in an environment awash with information, he says. In the 1980s it was something of a monopoly provider.

Kalisch says he has found the staff up for change. “I am finding a workforce that understands we need to engage with a changing world and wants to be part of it. I am seeing more enthusiasm for change than I probably expected.”

Coincident with his arrival, the government is considering merging the ABS with his old employer, the Institute of Health and Welfare. The 2014 Commission of Audit recommended merging the Institute with smaller health organisations. Kalisch thinks the ABS could be a better fit.

“Both organisations have a strong adherence to statistical standards,” he says. “The institute has a strong reputation for engaging with other stakeholders, and it is that dimension that I would like to see more pervasive in the bureau. If government was to accept that as an operating model then I think there would be some synergies in the way both organisations operate. I think they would benefit each other.”

He gives the impression the ABS he will leave in five years will be an organisation different from the one he has just joined.

Peter Martin is economics editor of The Age.

Twitter: @1petermartin

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Gogglebox review: Reality TV passes through the looking glass and it’s weirdly compelling


Gogglebox has all the hallmarks of a hit: great casting, sharp editing and zeitgeist-friendly. Photo: Channel 10 “Would it help to talk about it? Probably. Would it help that it’s happening on television? Probably not,” said Symon. Photo: Gogglebox Instagram
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With Gogglebox, reality TV has passed through the looking glassand perhaps finally landed in the place it always needed to be.

In the 15 years since the genre first landed en masse on our screens, the question has been: why do we want or need ordinary people doing mostly ordinary things beamed in to our living rooms every night? Schadenfreude? Envy? Prurience? A base desire for invading the privacy of others? Those and many other things. And Gogglebox – in which viewers are invited to watch other viewers watching television and observe their reactions – both answers the question and indulges the original instinct in a strange blancmange of televised humanity that works brilliantly in spite of itself.

It should, by rights, be unwatchable – as should some of the dross the Gogglebox viewers are watching for our entertainment. Instead, it’s weirdly compelling. It is also very difficult to review, given that the cast assembled by co-producers Channel Ten and Foxtel often come up with cracking one-line critiques that put we professional critics to shame. One might suggest that in lieu of giving these people a television show, they could have been given a television column and let loose with their observations.

There was this critique of a tattooed father-to-be on One Born Every Minute: “He looks like he’s about to steal the children and sell them on eBay.”

And our older couple, wine-sipping art lovers Mick and Di, watching the same show: Mick: “I recall changing nappies.” Di: “Well it certainly wasn’t our children.”

The producers wisely included big news events of the week, one of them being coverage of the Liberal leadership crisis from Canberra, an event which provided an instant national focus group that wouldn’t have gone over well in the PM’s office.

“Wake me when it’s over,” was one offering.

“He’s an idiot, that man,” was another.

“You’re a dickhead.”

“Big Mal. Get him in. Solid unit.”

And so forth.

Ten nobly avoided making the program all about its own programs. Seven’s My Kitchen Rules got ample airtime, as did Nine’s 60 Minutes and its competing version of the Sydney siege survivors story. If you were wondering how this played in living rooms across the land, here was your answer – it was gruelling, gut-wrenching television that prompted some surprisingly insightful commentary.

“Would it help to talk about it? Probably. Would it help that it’s happening on television? Probably not,” was the view of Symon, one half of the larrikin-mates duo Symon and Adam.

Of course, Ten’s own current offerings did get a healthy look-in – notably, I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here – during which we learned that there are indeed Australians who wouldn’t mind being buried alive and infested by a battalion of rats. And that the return of a middle-aged Marcia Brady to our screens has been both entertaining and traumatic: “Watching her on this has spoiled my whole Brady Bunch experience.”

Whether Gogglebox does the same for our wider experience of TV viewing, or whether it enhances our nightly gathering around the living room camp fire, will be revealed in the ratings results. The show did good business with its Foxtel debut on Wednesday, and is likely to show good returns for Thursday’s free-to-air debut on Ten.

It has all the hallmarks of a hit: great casting, sharp editing, zeitgeist-friendly and effortlessly adaptable to the changing television environment. It is extremely funny, at times oddly moving and suggests reality TV needed to go this step too far. Could it be that what we needed to see was not just real people on the telly – we needed to see just what it is about them that makes us tick? Who knows – perhaps the answer will come when we see the inevitable Gogglebox sequel – people watching people watching people watching television. You know it’s going to happen.

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Surgery team replaces valve on beating heart


Medical experts at St Vincent’s Hospital implant artificial valves while the patient’s heart keeps beating. Photo: Peter RaeSydney doctors have repaired leaking valves on two hearts that were still beating in a pioneering procedure that will save the lives of people at risk of heart failure.
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Rather than stopping the hearts and using a bypass while the valves were repaired, doctors implanted artificial valves inside the old leaky ones while the hearts continued to drum.

Each patient suffered from mitral valve regurgitation, a common condition whereby the valve between the left ventricle and left atrium does not close properly so the blood runs back into the lungs instead of going to the aorta.

Surgeon Paul Jansz said the procedure would improve the quality of life of people who were not good candidates for surgery and buy them more time before their hearts gave out.

“The significant thing is that we don’t have to stop the heart, so we don’t have to put the patient through all the extra rigors of heart surgery,” Dr Jansz said.

The first patient was operated at St Vincent’s Hospital in late November, and after six weeks without complications doctors performed the procedure on another patient on Wednesday.

Sixteen people filled the operating theatre for the second procedure on Wednesday, including surgeons, echocardiographers, anaesthetists, nurses and the industry engineers who designed the device.

Dr Jansz made an incision through the ribs, and head of interventional cardiology David Muller implanted the device that would act as a new valve, guided by anaesthetist Marty Shaw.

Shaped like a flower, the device consists of an artificial valve fashioned from the heart tissue of a pig, which is sewn into a metal cage and tethered to the apex of the heart with string.

As they moved it into position, the team’s patter resembled boatmen easing a craft into the water: “We need to come in a bit more centrally” – “That’s better” – “Little more away, little more in the same direction” – “Clockwise” – “One more little squeeze” – “Big squeeze” – “I’m not going to do any more. I think the orientation looks good.”

Dr Muller said doctors had been able to replace aortic valves for seven or eight years, because they became calcified so a new structure could be easily wedged inside.

“But the mitral apparatus is much more elastic and it changes its diameter with each contraction, so to have something sit there it would fall out without having something there to hold it,” Dr Muller said.

“The unique part of this device is that it’s tethered to the apex of the heart.”

It was also easily removable.

“So there should be no downside to putting it in and trying it. It’s a much less invasive, much better tolerated procedure for patients who are not well.”

Patient Michael Dwyer, 73, was groggy in the aftermath of his operation, but recovering well and expected to be discharged from hospital within days.

His wife, Cheryl, said the procedure had saved his life, after he suffered major organ failure in December.

“He was slowly dying,” Mrs Dwyer said.

“Having this procedure, which is a groundbreaking, revolutionary surgery, it’s a miracle really.”

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Duo hope to be Google of streaming


Tech entrepreneurs Scott and Andrew Julian at their office in Melbourne. Photo: Scott Barbour Tech entrepreneurs Scott Julian (L) and his brother Andrew Julian have developed an app called Gyde, a search engine for multiple TV streaming services. Photo: Scott Barbour
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What if finding good streaming video to watch on your TV was as easy as searching for answers on Google? Now an Australian duo thinks it is.

Melbourne brothers Andrew and Scott Julian have created an app they want to be the Google for streaming shows – a sort of universal remote control for internet TV.

In the next few months, Australians will have access to unprecedented sources of new and old TV shows and movies as Netflix joins Foxtel Presto, Stan, Quickflix and Dendy Direct in offering online entertainment via set-top box, smart TV, portable device, or devices like Chromecast and AppleTV.

Navigating this new, hectic, entertainment pool in a Google-like way is something in which the duo with established data and start-up pedigrees has invested many late nights.

Their search app, Gyde – for the moment only available on iOS devices – allows viewers to define their preferences so it can search multiple streaming providers accordingly. It uses algorithm, user behaviour and content preferences to create content recommendations.

Depending on content provider, users can click straight from the Gyde app to open the provider’s app and watch their selection, or go from the app to the provider, say, the iTunes store, to buy or rent the content, says Andrew Julian who acts as product lead. Users can favourite shows and add favourites to a watch queue.

“Gyde is an app that integrates the increasingly fragmented industry. We aim to unite content from streaming providers with their natural audiences.”

Australian audience demand for international releases, synchronised new season TV content from the US and a tendency for piracy and binge viewing has meant an avalanche of internet-based content options for the new on-demand age.

The imminent launch of dominant global streaming player Netflix in Australia alongside local aspirants Presto and Stan – a joint venture between Nine and Fairfax Media (publisher of this article) – have traditional broadcasters nervous.

Gyde co-founder Scott Julian predicts the Australian streaming market is likely to develop in much the same way as broadcast television did.

“Consumers will find that only having one [streaming] service won’t satisfy them,” he said.

The brothers’ other ventures – Gate13, an online shopping cart started with Scott after Andrew dropped out of university and sold for $1 million when he was 23 and now part of Australia Post, and media analytics company Effective Measure, among others – gave them the tech know-how for Gyde. Their partner Darcy Laycock, one of the key developers of Apple music search app Discovr, added his search and design nous.

The app already claims 100,000 users in the US  where it finds content from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and other providers. The company plans to open an office in Los Angeles this year, to be closer to Hollywood.

Laycock said, unlike the music industry, licensing complexity for movie and TV content makes it impossible for a video version of something like Spotify to exist, hence Gyde.

“This complexity is likely to force consumers to subscribe to multiple sources to get the content they want. If the industry is serious about combating piracy it needs need to make it seamless for people to not only find what to watch but also where they can watch it, making it an easier alternative than the piracy route.”

Foad Fadaghi, managing director of research firm Telsyte, agreed.

“There is a plethora of ways for consumers to access content both legally and illegally which is creating challenges for entertainment providers and consumers alike,” Fadaghi said.

Gyde, already with 100,000 users a month in the US, also has an option aimed at content providers.

“This will help streaming broadcasters gain a deeper understanding of what people want to watch, on what platform and how their content catalogues meet this demand,” Fadaghi said.

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NSW to build first public high-rise high school in Parramatta


An artist’s impression of Arthur Philip High in Parramatta’s CBD Photo: SuppliedThe state’s first public high-rise high school will be built in Parramatta to replace an ageing and overcrowded school that will be swamped with enrolments over the next two decades.
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Arthur Phillip High, in Parramatta’s CBD, will be totally rebuilt by 2019 and its neighbour, Parramatta Public School, will also be rebuilt as part of a $100 million development announced on Thursday by the Premier, Mike Baird.

The new schools will cater for about 3000 students. But Mr Baird said the “world-leading schools” would only be built if his government was given a mandate to sell the state’s electricity poles and wires.

“We have waited a long time to have the funds to ensure our schools are not just leading the nation but leading the world,” Mr Baird said.

“Here at Arthur Phillip High, we will have a high school that is world leading. It will combine two campuses, Arthur Phillip and Parramatta primary, and it will provide an opportunity to  cater for the growth that is coming to this region.”

Mr Baird said the new schools would be “the envy of the world”.

“My question to the people of NSW is pretty simple: why do we have to wait for these type of schools?” Mr Baird said.

The Education Minister, Adrian Piccoli, said the Parramatta development would be “the biggest single investment in a school in the state’s history”.

“This is all about improving student results. We have a world-class teaching profession, we are investing in teacher quality and we need the facilities to allow that quality teaching to occur,” Mr Piccoli said.

Mr Piccoli said the new school would be “incredibly amazing”.

He said students would move in to the new school at the beginning of 2019 and although there would be disruption to students, the Department of Education would work hard to ensure “minimal interruption”.

“When the plans are finalised, you will see the recognition of the importance of physical activity has well and truly been catered for,” Mr Piccoli said. “It’s not just going to be a rectangular building.”

St Andrew’s Cathedral School, a private school in Sydney’s CBD, is the only high-rise school in NSW.

The principal of Arthur Phillip, Lynne Goodwin, said the school desperately needed more space but was confident that students would enjoy learning in a high-rise school.

“They’ll love it,” Ms Goodwin said.

Several of the heritage buildings dating back to 1875 would be retained but the 1960s blocks would go, she said.   What it’s like inside a vertical high school

On my first day at St Andrew’s Cathedral School in the city, my mum and I spent half an hour looking for the right turn into Bathurst Street. Being in the heart the city, right next to Town Hall in a nine-storey building, students at my school face a variety of challenges while being afforded many unique opportunities that you wouldn’t find at a flat school in the suburbs.

These opportunities manifest themselves in many different ways  – from having a wealth of food establishments to pick from at lunchtime, to being able to use the city’s resources as learning tools in excursions. Being in the centre of Sydney’s transport network, we can easily travel from nearly anywhere and be sure we’ll arrive on time. Furthermore, students in the younger years can use our unique rooftop playground to enjoy the city views while they eat and play at lunch-time. These advantages are contrasted to a variety of challenges that you would be hard-pressed to find at another school.

From a young age, the phrase ‘stranger danger’ is drilled into student’s heads, nearly as much as “Don’t cross Kent Street on a red light or you’ll get a detention”. Safety is a major aspect of our school, as is crossing traffic appropriately. The busy city is traffic is nearly as dangerous as trying to go down the east stairs when there’s a whole junior school class in your way. Rules have to be very specific, in accordance with our exceptional circumstances.

For instance, we’re not allowed to use the lifts to go down, only up, except for the little kids in junior school.  To get a lift pass, you have to be injured or be carrying a large or delicate musical instrument.

These opportunities and challenges award us unique learning options that would certainly be unavailable to people at other schools. I believe that being in a nine-storey high-rise building makes St Andrew’s Cathedral School a privilege to learn in and that without its countless flights of stairs, it wouldn’t be the same.

Lachlan Renwick and Jordan Barnes

Lachlan and Jordan are year 11 students at St Andrew’s Cathedral School, Sydney.  

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