Private or public resource? Have your say in how big data is used

By Stephen Easton

April 18, 2016

It seems almost everyone in government is either asking how we should use “big data” or being asked how they’re using it. The holy grail of effective, automated depersonalisation remains unsolved, but that hasn’t stopped the need for controls and consensus.

The Productivity Commission stepped into that conversation this week asking how Australia can make the most of public data by maximising sharing between governments, researchers, companies and other organisations.

It follows the Senate Select Committee on Health earlier this year reaching across jurisdictions to find out all it can about public data sharing in medical research, and whether it can be done in compliance with the privacy principles from watchdog agencies like the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner.

A restructure of how government releases its voluminous but less contentious data on was also a top priority at a recent community forum held by the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet on joining the Open Government Partnership.

It’s a field where the range of issues is “virtually without boundaries”, PC chair Peter Harris said on Monday as he released the discussion paper that will inform his final report early next year. Despite the daunting task, Harris hopes he can focus his inquiry on the big-picture issues.

Harris is especially interested in submissions from government agencies and academics, as well as any “organisations interested in data access” and private entities with big databases which could provide greater access to others.

The inquiry could eventually result in state, territory and federal agencies getting greater access to data from other entities, as well as having more of their own large data sets made available. It will weigh the benefits of giving third parties more access to data — held in both the private and public spheres — against the risks to individual rights and commercial interests.

Current protections for “the legitimate interests of individuals and businesses in privacy and confidentiality” will come under scrutiny to “consider whether they remain fit for purpose” in the context of a global race to turn big data into big economic benefits.

The first of five terms of reference asks the commission to:

“Examine the benefits and costs of options for increasing availability of public sector data to other public sector agencies (including between the different levels of government), the private sector, research sector, academics and the community. Where there are clear benefits, recommend ways to increase and improve data linking and availability.”

It will be scouting for examples of high-value public sector datasets so it can highlight their characteristics, making it easier for government bodies to identify their best data assets. The PC also wants to know about rules, regulations or “other impediments” to sharing and linking up public sector data that seem unnecessary, and how they can be removed or reduced.

The extremely broad terms of reference cover ways private data holdings could be opened up to researchers, government bodies and the public, as well as concerns the data owners would have about providing access.

“Options to improve individuals’ access to public and private sector data about themselves” as well as the potential to set standards for the collection, sharing and release of public, private and academic data are also on the agenda.

In a statement, Harris said the culture, standards and policy structures of big data analytics may need to “move out of the back room and into the showroom if community confidence and wide opportunity for innovation are to be maximised.”

Along with the debatable claim that open data policies “increase the transparency and accountability of government processes”, Treasurer Scott Morrison explained some of the potential benefits and risks of cracking open more Australian databases and sharing their contents:

“Increased sharing of data across the public and private sectors could facilitate greater leveraging of technology to improve individuals’ and entities’ interactions with government, improve the integrity of systems and increase administrative efficiency.

“In taking advantage of greater use of data, it is important to give appropriate attention to other interests such as privacy, security and intellectual property.”

The PC says it will seek to determine if Australian governments have been meeting the commitments made in the 2010 Declaration of Open Government. The commission will assess whether federal agencies have lived up to the principles on public sector information that state “open access to information” as the default position on the basis that “information held by Australian Government agencies is a valuable national resource”.

The big data inquiry will also scrutinise how well the government has lived up to last year’s data policy commitment to:

“… optimise the use and reuse of public data; release non sensitive data as open by default; and to collaborate with the private and research sectors to extend the value of public data for the benefit of the Australian public.”

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