Data61 an international exemplar of public sector 'digital innovation' done right

By Stephen Easton

April 15, 2019

Data61 is pleased as punch to be presented as a world-leading example of how a public body can contribute to national “digital innovation” through a new OECD report.

The CSIRO’s advanced research-and-development unit proudly announced this week its model had been “recognised … as a global blueprint for digital and open innovation” by the OECD through publication of the case study, which was requested by the international body and authored by several current and former staff including chief executive Adrian Turner.

The publication is an overview of Data61’s cutting-edge capabilities and deep expertise in fields like analytics, automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain, cyber security and privacy-preserving data sharing. The report explains its ambitions for the future, specific projects and the “network model” that positions it as a common ground for combined efforts of academics, industry and government.

“Now more than ever, mission-driven digital innovation is critical for continued progress within Australia and across the world,” said Turner.

“Our model is about bringing the best R&D capabilities together, breaking down institutional boundaries and building global partnerships to drive digital innovation at speed and scale, for the benefit of Australia.

“Several other countries are looking to establish their own versions of Data61, modelled in whole or in part, on our approach.”

The case study report, several years in the making, explains Data61’s genesis in a merger of the former national ICT research centre of excellence NICTA and the CSIRO’s “digital productivity” unit, following a “period of uncertainty in Australian innovation policy” and as the mining boom was coming to an end.

“Its intent was to create a culturally transformative and globally significant data science and analytics capability at a time of unprecedented structural change in the national and global economies,” explains the case-study report, included as an exemplar in the OECD report on member states “seizing policy opportunities” in digital technology.

“Data61 is dedicated to a dual mission: pursuing new-to-the-world fundamental and applied research; and by working collaboratively with others in the nation’s innovation ecosystem, to reimagine and seed new industries in a data-led world. As the world wrestles with the emergence of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Data61’s role is to help the Australian economy and society navigate a quantum shift.”

The case study also explains where the 61 comes from — Australia’s international dialling code — and points to international collaborations that have born fruit.

“Some of this international work ranges from monitoring biodiversity in the Amazon rainforests, simulating climate extremes over East Asian-Australian monsoon regions, and building privacy protecting open data platforms for governments and industry.

“Data61 will continue to expand in international markets such as the United States, SouthEast Asia and Chile by building on the long-standing relationships that have been established by the CSIRO with universities, corporates, governments and non-government organisations and establishing new relationships underpinned by the application of its new technologies, software and services.”

The organisation now has “collaboration agreements” in place with over 30 universities.

“Our network model allows us to assemble teams from universities, government and industry partners to work together on Australia’s greatest challenges,” its CEO said.

“As part of CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency, we combine our deep technology expertise with domain knowledge across manufacturing, energy, environment, space, health and biosecurity, agriculture and food, space to accelerate the trajectory of Australia from within.”

According to the head of the OECD’s science and technology policy division, Dominique Guellec, Data61 is a good example of a research and innovation centre because “it promotes multidisciplinary teams combining strong data and field-specific expertise, which are much needed in the digital age.”

Some of Data61’s recent work has involved six-legged robots (pictured), cyber security for the “internet of things” and leading public discussion about ethics in automation and artificial intelligence.

It also recently looked at what blockchain might be good for after the hype dies down. As The Mandarin reported, discussions in Senate estimates revealed federal agencies have quite a few blockchain projects on the boil as well as a reminder from the Digital Transformation Agency’s acting CEO that “choosing a technology and trying to find a solution for it” is the wrong approach.

Top image: the hexapod robot Weaver. CSIRO / Navinda Kottege

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