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Bureau of Meteorology super computer delays ‘very concerni…


Preparation for this summer’s weather extremes from fire alerts to cyclone warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology could be affected by the bungled introduction of a new super computer despite many millions being spent on consultants, insiders say.

The new computer, dubbed Australis II, is twice as powerful as its predecessor but has been sitting idle for a year. It may not be fully operational until mid-2025, according to a timeline shared to staff and seen by Guardian Australia.

The crux of the problem is not hardware but the implementation of what was conceived as a five-year program – labelled Robust – to reduce bureau vulnerability to a cyber-attack after a 2015 hack.

The full cost of Robust has never been disclosed but staff estimate it will top $500m and may approach twice that sum by completion.

Consultants from Deloitte and Accenture, among others, have won tenders worth tens of millions of dollars. Some contracts have been extended for years and at a higher price despite Robust’s delays. All up, about $978m in private sector contracts were listed for 2022, with the majority understood to be related to the program.

Management have diverted staff and delayed other work while tapping into the bureau’s $200m-plus “sustainability” fund to pay for the blowouts and cover for consultant skill shortages, insiders say.

“One the main issues with the Robust datacentre plans was getting sufficient bandwidth to and from Melbourne and Canberra,” one staffer said. “At one point people talked about sending hard disks via courier because it was faster than using the internet.

“All these kinds of stuff-ups are typical when you give dollars to companies with zero relevant skill, knowledge and expertise, and ask them to build the bureau’s next computing facilities.”

Both Deloitte and Accenture said they do not comment on client matters.

A bureau spokesperson said Robust’s completion date had been extended a year until June 2024 “in light of supply chain and labour market disruptions brought about by Covid-19”. It was also “operating within approved budget parameters”.

She said delays would have “no impact on the delivery of bureau services to the Australian community”, adding the June 2023 Department of Finance-led Gateway review found “program management disciplines are strong and this provides confidence that the ambitious Robust program will be delivered in full”.

The Greens senator Barbara Pocock, who has helped lead a Senate inquiry into consulting services, said delays and cost overruns were “very concerning given the high stakes as we go into what could be a catastrophic fire season”.

“The fact that the new system could be up to two years behind schedule with potentially a billion-dollar price tag once again raises questions about merit and value for money when these contracts are outsourced to the private sector,” Pocock said.

“Time and again we are seeing evidence of an acute need for high-level technical skills inside the public service.”

A spokesperson for Tanya Plibersek, the minister responsible for the bureau, said the matter was “inherited from the Morrison government and we will continue to monitor it closely”.

Staff say the work that has been completed was mostly “low-hanging fruit”, such as replacing automatic weather stations, installing new radars, and putting fences and locks around weather stations. Cyber defences and high-level design around the massive flows of realtime data required by the new super computer are “just getting started”.

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Among the projects affected was the Australian Safety and Alert Protocols work.

“It would have delivered advanced warnings for severe rainfall, lightning and hail,” one staffer said.

“Some sustainability funding has been diverted to the Robust program, which is harming other bureau projects in Australian Climate Services and high-impact weather services – for example, the Australian Fire Danger Ratings System,” the person said.

The new bureau website built by external consultants scheduled to go live in mid-2023 was postponed after beta-testing in late 2022 failed, revealing “severe flaws”.

Senior staff asking to see what clauses exist in the consultancy contracts to claw back compensation have been rebuffed, the staffer said.

Another staffer said improvements in forecasts had also been postponed. “We don’t have weather models under development,” the person said, adding “now there’s this mad panic” to ensure the existing Australis I computer can continue to operate while its successor remains on ice.

“[It’s been] two years and we still have no proven way to get data in and out” of Australis II, the person said.

While international models could be tapped to help hone forecasts beyond one day, predictions over shorter periods were affected by the delays, the person said. These could result in forecasts for hailstorms, bushfire behaviour and the precise speed and tracks of tropical cyclones being less accurate than would have been the case.

A plan to re-analyse the atmosphere over Australia going back to 1980 to provide more localised understanding of how the climate is changing was also delayed in the research backlog, the staffer said.

“The main consequences of the delays are in the future,” the person said. “We’re reaching the point where we – humanity – need the information.”

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