In Brief | Public Data

Public data is information collected or generated by governments for any purposes including government administration, research, or service delivery. The following resources will introduce you to some key resources on the collection, generation and use of public data in Australia.
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A 2016 IBM research brief estimated that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone, at 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day, with the EMC Digital Universe study finding that by 2020 the digital universe will contain as many digital bits as there are stars in the universe and that 10% of that data will be from embedded systems. ECM also found that less than 5% of potentially useful data is actually analysed to generate information, build knowledge and inform decision making and action.

Producing and exploiting data through knowledge workers - popularised by Peter Drucker in his 1959 book The Landmarks of Tomorrow - is now seen as the main way to grow the economy. As far back as 2000, the then Trade Minister Mark Vale spoke of the contribution of knowledge-based industries to GDP as being 48% for Australia.

Effective use of public data is  integral to the efficient functioning of today’s knowledge economy. It can facilitate development of new products and services, enhance consumer and business outcomes, better inform decision making and policy development, and facilitate greater efficiency and innovation in the economy. A 2014 Lateral Economics report revealed that ready access to public data in Australia has the potential to generate a value worth up to $25 billion per year, slightly more than 1.5 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP, chain volume measures) in 2014, and the same reported value of the microblogging site Twitter in 2014.

There is a debate, though, about the extent to which public administration is keeping pace with developments in the knowlege economy, as this submission to a parliamentary enquiry into digital delivery of government services argues. In November 2018 the government published its Digital Transformation Strategy (DTS) which outlined three strategic priorities: government that's easy to deal with; government that's informed by you; and government that's fit for the digital age. Two projects identified in the DTS are data sharing by government entities and digital identity. See the Digital Transformation Agency's Vision 2025 for more on the direction of its work to 2025.

In December 2015, the Australian Government issued a Public Data Policy Statement which sets out its commitments to public data and which was a key focus of former Prime Minister Turnbull’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA). NISA stated that publishing, linking, and sharing public data is fundamental to making government more citizen-focused, creating new and innovative products and services, and increasing efficiency. At the same time, the Public Sector Data Management Report identified the current status and strategies for improving the use of and access to non-sensitive public data. Implementation of this roadmap has been documented in the July 2016 Public Sector Data Management Implementation Report.

Since then, the OECD has observed that 'public bodies produce and commission huge quantities of data and information....By encouraging the use, reuse and free distribution of datasets, governments promote business creation and innovative, citizen‑centric services’.

In May 2018, the Australian Government released its response to the Productivity Commission Report on Data Availability and Use. Three reforms were announced in this response: a new Consumer Data Right (CDR) which gives citizens greater transparency and control over their own data; a National Data Commissioner to implement and oversee a simpler, more efficient data sharing and release framework; and new legislative and governance arrangements to enable better use of data across the economy while ensuring appropriate safeguards are in place to protect sensitive information. Some commentary on these reforms can be found here and here.

In July 2018, a Government issues paper foreshadowed  data sharing and release (DSR) legislation that would ‘streamline the process for sharing public sector data and improve data safeguards across the public service’. Working closely with the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC), a National Data Commissioner (NDC) would monitor and enforce the provisions of the DSR Bill and associated legislative instruments.  An interim NDC was appointed in August 2018 and members of a National Data Advisory Council were appointed in March 2019.

In March 2019 the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet released Data Sharing Principles to assist agencies holding government data to safely and effectively share the data, along with a Sharing Data Safely Brochure.  

The September 2019 Data Sharing and Release Legislative Reforms Discussion Paper sharpened the government's focus on DSR since the original issues paper (above). It incorporates the insights that the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet – through the Office of the National Data Commissioner – has obtained from submissions and stakeholder engagement activities.

Key issues in the development of DSR governance arrangements are likely to be: the extent to which data will be stored or shared in a form that enables identification of an individual; whether data has been ‘de‑identified’; and, if de‑identified, whether that process is effective, and whether data can be ‘re‑identified’. Effective governance will also reduce over-collection of data; increase transparency of how the government uses that data; and minimise risk of data breaches and the burden of storing duplicate datasets.

When data is shared, linked and combined across sectoral and institutional boundaries, a multiplier effect occurs. Connecting one bit with another unlocks new insights and understandings that often weren’t anticipated. Yet, due to commercial limits and liabilities, the full value of data is often unrealized. This is particularly true when it comes to using data for the common good. While public-private data collaborations represent an unprecedented opportunity to address some of the world’s most urgent and complex challenges, they have generally been small and limited in impact

Public-private data collaborations can enhance trust and drive innovation in the economy. A 2019 report from the World Economic Forum and McKinsey Data Collaboration for the Common Good explores the factors needed to strengthen trust, balance competing interests and deliver impact. It notes that "the results can be seen in faster decision-making during natural disasters and disease outbreaks, better insights on addressing the complex challenges related to poverty, health and employment and more precise indicators to measure the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals".  

Open data is information that anyone can find, explore and reuse. A vast amount of this data is collected during the course of normal government activities, including service delivery, research or administration. The Mandarin reported in 2017 that in data released by the Global Open Data Index, Australia is a world leader in providing public data. A 2019 government report Information Access Study 2019 found that citizens place great value on open access to government data. Read Pia Waugh's What Does Open Government Mean for Digital Transformation? for moreOpen data is about taking the vast majority of government datasets and information that don’t have personal information or security issues, and putting them online in the most useful way possible.

The 2016 Bureau of Communications Research report Open Government Data and Why It Matters lists some of Australia’s open government data initiatives and projects to date including data.gov.au, Open Data 500 Australia, SODA or Stream of Digital Archives (National Archives of Australia) and GovHack. 

Data.gov.au provides an easy way to find, access and reuse public data. There are currently over 84,000 discoverable datasets  listed on their website. Their website highlights uses of that data including images from the Sentinel-2 satellites and the IP-GOLD combined data sets from IP Australia which provide essential information on Australia's intellectual property data.

Data visualisation positions words, images, and infographics alongside data to help users understand its significance. In September 2016, IPAA ACT hosted a seminar on the value of data visualisation. The slides from that presentation can be found here

Australia’s National Map is an open resource project centred on providing an improved data infrastructure and visualisation capability for Australians to government data. Another data visualisation tool  is EarthSci a digital globe built by Geoscience Australia for visualising 3D geoscience data, both on and under the surface of the Earth.

Privacy and data security are key concerns for in the move to make public data more accessible and open. The Australian Government’s Public Data Policy Statement (also referred  to above) sets out Australia’s commitments to uphold the highest standards of  data security and privacy. This is further fleshed out in the government’s Cyber Security Strategy. Agency privacy commitments will be articulated in the Privacy Code for the Australian Public Service (currently in development) which will set out the minimum requirements under Australian Privacy Principle 1.2.

Under the Protective Security Policy Framework, government entities seek to achieve information security through attention to four key areas: sensitive and classified information; access to information; safeguarding information from cyber threats; and robust ICT systems. Entities are guided by the Australian Government Information Security Manual and an online hub for cyber security information, both produced by the Australian Cyber Security Centre within the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

In 2016 IPAA hosted the then Special Advisor on Cyber Security Alastair MacGibbon to present his reflections on the lessons learned from the eCensus events of 9 August 2016, and the new imperative for Government to embrace cyber security as a core platform for digital transformation. Click here for a video of that presentation and here for his review of the events surrounding the eCensus.

In May 2019 IPAA hosted the 2019 Graduate Data Forum: A Data-Based APS, A Better Australia. Presentations and video from the event can be found here. In October 2019  a conference Maximising Value from Data: Navigating the Opportunities and Challenges was hosted by IPAA in partnership with the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. This event built on the Public Sector Data Integration: Unlocking the Value of the Australia's Public Data conference held in 2017 and is informed by the findings of the Independent Review of the APS which recocgnised the importantce of data to policymaking, program delivery and the public service generally.

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