Two Uni Students From Queensland Built a Better Census Site in One Weekend

Their website is faster, cheaper, and more secure. And they didn't even fill out the Census this year.

by Katherine Gillespie
17 August 2016, 12:00am

There's still time to complete the actual 2016 census, if you dare.

It cost the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) many years and $9 million to build its somewhat inadequate Census website, which was taken down by a DDoS attack after being online for mere hours. Over the weekend, two uni students from Queensland were able to build a better Census site in two days for only $500.

The two young computer geniuses behind the aptly-named Make Census Great Again website are students Austin Wilshire (18) and Bernd Hartzer (24). Both hail from the Queensland University of Technology. Their system can handle nearly 40 times as many census submissions per second as the ABS one can, and is specifically designed to prevent the DDoS attack that forced the Census offline on August 9.

Their alternative website was created for a "hack-a-thon" competition run by student group Code Network. The two hackers came first in the competition, going home with a Microsoft tablet, which kind of seems like a crappy prize for out-coding the government.

Unlike the ABS Census site, which uses a system designed and hosted by IBM, the site designed by Wilshire and Hartzer uses cloud infrastructure technology to cope with the significant stress of millions of users inputting data at once. The IBM census server was built on a more traditional closed computer system.

Speaking to VICE today, Wilshire and Hartzer said they were surprised about some of the methods the amateurs over at the ABS had used in constructing their census website.

"The IBM system was built using dedicated hardware," Wilshire said. "This means that they had a hard limit on what their servers could handle."

The cloud-based solution used by Wilshire and Hartzer features "serverless architecture" technology that's been around for a couple of years now. The cloud-based server expands according to how many people are using it, which makes it capable of bearing a huge load of users.

"The easiest way to explain it is to think of it like hiring a car, but only paying for how far you've driven it and the company pays for fuel and maintenance," Wilshire said.

Wilshire says he was surprised the ABS didn't go down a serverless architecture route. "Because the technology is so new, they [the ABS] decided to take the 'safe' route that has worked before, he told VICE. "Unfortunately, this approach is quickly becoming outdated and the need for Cloud Based services in government will increase in the future."

Wilshire and Hartzer both admit they didn't complete the Census this year. They did, however, say they thought the government would've spent a lot of time and money ensuring people's data was secure. They think the DDoS attack that occurred on Census night did not represent a threat to people's privacy.

The ABS is yet to reach out to the duo, who say they are eager to talk.

"We would be really excited to talk to them about what stopped them from using Cloud Infrastructure," Wilshire said. "We know about some privacy laws, but having a detailed exploitation would be great and it would clear up a lot of things people are wondering about."

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