CSIRO and Microsoft heads want the Australian public and private sectors to build their digital literacy

By Shannon Jenkins

Wednesday August 26, 2020


The coronavirus pandemic has prompted Australian governments to quickly improve their digital literacy, but there is a still a long way to go, according to CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall.

Speaking on Work with Purpose for Science Week, Marshall noted that CSIRO created its Data61 agency in 2015 because it was concerned about the lack of digital literacy in Australian governments and industry. After seeing what has occurred during the pandemic, he believes Australia is capable of boosting its digital literacy even more.

“I spent my whole career in Silicon Valley, so I have a pretty high bar for digital literacy in organisations, and I don’t see that same capability here in Australia, not yet. But in the last five years it’s come a long way,” he said.

“I think COVID has probably accelerated us five years in terms of our digital literacy. We need to keep that up, so when we go back, we keep a lot of the digital learnings that we’ve had, like video conferencing, like the power of data.”

Microsoft Australia managing director Steve Worrall said it has been “comforting” to see how science has led Australian governments in their pandemic responses, and Australians have learned very quickly about the importance of communities knowing about the COVID-related data.

He agreed that Australia has made “massive advances” in the last six months, and should continue to focus on key areas including capabilities and competencies inside government, and the use of technology systems that present data.

“The other thought — and maybe this is the more important right now — is the simple idea of literacy, familiarity and skills,” he added.

“That’s why I’ve been so pleased to see the work that the Digital Transformation Agency is doing under Randall’s [Brugeaud] leadership, to really focus in on digital skills and being familiar with the impact of technology and how that will change the way in which governments operate here and of course all around the world.”

Microsoft has been working with the DTA to upskill public servants across Australia, “to ensure that we have that familiarity” to use the tools that would be important in the future, Worrall said.

Marshall noted that CSIRO, the DTA and other departments have also created programs to raise digital literacy.

“We have one that we used in CSIRO called the Digital Academy, and it’s how we get our people who are in very traditional industries like agriculture and get them to understand the power of digital tools to transform their jobs,” he said.

“There was a lot of fear about that originally, the usual ‘you are going to replace me with a computer’, until they realised that actually once you have the digital tools, you end up being able to collect, say almost 10 times more data. This means you don’t waste your time collecting the data, you invest your time in using the data to gain insights and to deliver knowledge, create knowledge that you couldn’t possibly have done before you embrace those digital tools and as a result, you have more work of a higher value, not less work and the organisation gets better efficiency.”

Read more: DTA’s Randall Brugeaud new digital head of profession, digital stream strategy launched

Marshall reflected on addressing the potential vulnerabilities that came with the federal government’s COVIDSafe app while retaining the benefits. The app needed to track people without compromising their personal information.

“I was really gratified to see the way that CSIRO, Randall’s team, and the [Australian] Cyber Security Centre were all able to work together with government to each focus on a particular part of that app to make it really deliver and deliver a high level of security, but still fulfil its purpose,” he said.

“Similarly, the Australian E-Health research centre which CSIRO created … populates the state dashboards with very specific data about COVID outbreaks and helps the leaders understand where their problems are and how to manage them. Again, [it’s] extremely secure, but it had to be because it’s very sensitive data.”

The next phase for Australian governments’ digital maturity and cyber security maturity would relate to culture and behaviour, Marshall said, because collaboration was important — particularly in research — but governments must be careful about who they collaborate with.

“We want sharing of information and sharing of data, but we want to be sure who we’re actually sharing it with. This process raises the kind of tensions that make collaboration more difficult,” he said.

Read more: Australia needs to build an AI-ready society, according to ANU’s Professor Genevieve Bell

Worrall argued that all public and private sector organisations must have a deep focus on building digital literacy, capability and understanding within their teams because “cyber security is an issue for every single Australian”, every business and every part of government.

“In a way, we think about defence and security as a nation — and it’s a topic that is discussed openly and it has been for decades — and cyber security is nothing other than that same discussion, but in the online environment,” he said.

He said that many cyber threats relate to human behaviour, which could be addressed by employing more people in cybersecurity who understand how people interact with digital platforms.

“How particular criminals or nation states may address or attack others, can come down to weaknesses related to human behaviour. How you might interact with a particular invitation or how you might respond to a particular question. We are increasingly seeing that there is a technical element here, but then this is very much about human behaviour and it is very much about our security, but just as I say, migrated to an online environment,” he said.

“When I talk with any audience about this topic, we are trying to attract as many people as possible into this conversation, because we need more people working in cybersecurity in the country. Many of these people will have those deep technical skills, but others will be very much based in human behaviour and how we interact with digital platforms. I think that’s a key element of how we help address both the threat, but also use this as an opportunity to provide employment and clearly to ensure the future prosperity of our economy.”

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