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Australia needs comprehensive data sharing reform

By Dylan Bushell-Embling
Tuesday, 09 May, 2017

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The Productivity Commission has completed a report into data availability and use, finding that the nation is lagging behind its peers including the US, the UK and New Zealand in terms of open access to public sector data.

The report finds that despite the progress made towards an open data regime, there remains considerable scope to improve both the range of data being made public, as well as the formatting and frequency of publication of already open datasets.

Despite recent statements by the government in favour of greater openness, many areas of the Australian public sector continue to be reluctant to share or release data, the report states.

Inhibiting factors include an “entrenched culture of risk aversion” as well as “often perverse incentives” to refrain from the public release of data.

“The lack of public release and data sharing between government entities has contributed to fragmentation and duplication of data collection activities. This not only wastes public and private sector resources but also places a larger than necessary reporting burden on individuals and organisations,” the report finds.

It calls for the establishment of a new framework for data sharing, which would include a comprehensive reform of Australia’s data infrastructure. Mere marginal changes to existing structures and legislation “will not suffice”, the report states.

Ensuring community trust and acceptance will be vital for the implementation of any such reforms, the report states. This will require enhancing consumer rights, implementing genuine safeguards and ensuring transparency and effective risk management.

A key component of this would be the proposed consumer right to benefit from the sharing of their data, as outlined by Productivity Commission Chairman Peter Harris during a speech in March.

The report states that such a right would entitle consumers to share joint access to and use of their consumer data with the holder of that data, request a copy and any edits or corrections needed to improve accuracy, be informed of any trade or disclosure of their data to third parties and direct data holders to transfer their data to a third party.

The Productivity Commission is also recommending that all levels of Australian government immediately adopt a policy of the early release of all “non-sensitive” publicly funded datasets. This will require agencies to conduct a realistic assessment of the risks attached to the release of identifiable information that is already public, but in a less accessible form.

In addition, the report calls for agencies to report annually on the proportions of their datasets made publicly available or not made available for release.

The report also calls for the establishment of an Office of the National Data Custodian, which would “take overall responsibility for the implementation of data management policy, in consultation with all levels of government” and seek to “streamline approval processes for access to data”.

A series of Accredited Release Authorities would act under this new Office and serve as “sectoral hubs of expertise and enable the ongoing maintenance of, and streamlined access to, National Interest Datasets as well as to other datasets to be linked and shared or released”.

Assistant Minister for Cities and Digital Transformation Angus Taylor welcomed the report, stating that improving access to data will result in greater competition.

“Empowering citizens, governments, industries and researchers to use and share data will boost transparency — igniting competition and innovation,” he said.

“Government recognises first and foremost that the community must trust and accept any reforms to Australia’s data system.”

He said the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet has convened a cross-portfolio taskforce to study the report and prepare a full government response in consultation with stakeholders.

The commission’s assertion that Australia is lagging behind comparable countries in terms of open data access seems to conflict with the recent report from Open Knowledge International finding that Australia ranks equal first with Taiwan in terms of open data access out of a list of 94 countries.

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