Breaking the data silos: including Indigenous Australians in the data-driven world

By Ian Anderson

Thursday April 26, 2018

Earlier this month the Australian Institute for Health and Welfare (AIWH), which develops and analyses data for government, and Australian and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) hosted a gathering of researchers, public data holders and government officials from the Commonwealth, state and territory. The purpose was better use of data to improve policy, design and implementation. This is the first of a series of articles from this event called Breaking the Data Silos.

As governments around Australia embark on a transformation of how they use public data sets to improve their communities, the state of data on Indigenous people is lacking. Often national level only, with no detail or relevance to local communities, government data on Australia’s First Peoples is hampered by privacy considerations, jurisdictional and portfolio silos, and bias in design decisions.

It is only through sharing data and changing the culture around data usage that we can uncover new insights and put data to good use, says Professor Ian Anderson, Deputy Secretary for Indigenous Affairs at the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. Anderson tackles some of these issues and calls for a way forward in his address to Breaking the Data Silos.


Sharing data for better policy and service delivery

We all know, and can all feel, that data has increasing power and influence over our lives. Governments, businesses, communities and individuals all use data to inform their decision making.

Today, we are collecting more accurate data on more of the population; we are targeting our services to an individual’s life circumstance; we can determine the type of service an individual receives according to their prior health history; we can track and monitor an individual’s health and welfare outcomes over the course of their life.

A good example of the potential of data to drive improved Indigenous policy outcomes is the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework, which some of you may be familiar with.

The Framework is the authoritative source for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health policy, collecting and presenting a diverse range of information in a single, comprehensive source.

Significantly, the measures in the Framework have strategic value and reflect collaboration and a coordinated effort from the Commonwealth and states and territories.

The data contained in the Framework is clearly useful and can be seen in influencing many policy initiatives. For example, in 2008 the Framework played a pivotal role in the decision by the Council of Australian Governments to allocate resources to address Indigenous disadvantage.

This kind of straightforward, common-sense use of data – in this case, organisations working together to achieve a shared vision of tracking progress on Indigenous health measures – serves as a good foundation to start thinking about how we can improve our entire data system so that is in the interests of Indigenous Australians.

Challenges and gaps

Whilst we have better data capability than ever before, and there are notable successes like the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework, there are serious challenges we need to address in our data system if we are to better address the needs of Indigenous Australians in public policy.

These challenges cover a number of areas. For example, we know that;

Too often the data we have about Indigenous Australians remains at the national level – not at a regional or community level. A blanket national figure may have no relevance whatsoever to what is occurring in a local community.

We know that many Indigenous policy issues could be better analysed and understood drawing on linked cross‑departmental and cross-jurisdictional data. However the willingness of organisations to share data is hampered by process complexities and lack of shared vision.

Privacy considerations, while important, are often used as a barrier to undertaking work that could produce important and useful evidence. Privacy is important no mistake, but we need to work through to these issues and not let it prevent us from managing to use the data to get real impact.



Some data items are either not collected in a timely manner or not collected at all. For example, while there is significant data on Indigenous welfare recipients, there is limited data about employed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

We can see these challenges reflected in the data we have across all policy areas, to varying degrees.

It is also important to highlight that Indigenous people have inherent and inalienable rights under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples relating to the collection, ownership and application of data about them.

As data becomes further ingrained into the way we do things and the way we make decisions, we as data custodians must look at changing the way we approach and use data so that Indigenous Australians are represented in our increasingly data-driven world.

What we need to do to change

To paraphrase Professor Maggie Walter, essentially we need to shorten the distance between those producing the data, and those that are the object of the data – that is, Indigenous Australians.

This requires a collaborative and cross-jurisdictional approach where data custodians and Indigenous Australians are all working together.

We need to move to an approach with a focus on accessibility; on true community engagement; on accountability to the people being affected; on openness and commitment to change.

Indigenous capability, organisational and individual, is growing. Developing greater Indigenous leadership and capability around data analysis and research will help drive empowerment for local communities so that they can tell their own stories and make decisions using their own data.

It will put behind us the negative mindset, replacing it with a positive narrative focused on enabling Indigenous Australians to lead lives they value while at the same time supporting Indigenous advancement.

A way forward

Many of you may be asking “what does this change look like for government?”

I’d like to take the Closing Gap Refresh, an initiative that my department is leading, as one early-stage example.

We know that that in developing the Closing the Gap indicators, there was not enough engagement with Indigenous Australians, and we have relied too much on a one-size fits all approach that fails to recognise the diversity of Indigenous Australians.



Australian governments have acknowledged they need to work together with Indigenous Australian leaders on a refreshed agenda and renewed targets.

As a part of the Refresh, the first step in our commitment of working with Indigenous Australians was a Special Gathering, held last month in Canberra where the Prime Minister and First Ministers met with Indigenous leaders to discuss the future of Closing the Gap.

As part of the Closing the Gap refresh we will explore ways to make data more available to help communities and governments better understand local issues. And we will also look at ways to ensure more data, from both the Commonwealth and states is shared.

Only through collaboration and outreach can we democratise data and break down silos.

This requires public policy agencies, organisations you may be representing today, engaging with Indigenous Australians in the process of how you develop, collect and use data that is about Indigenous Australians.

By improving the asset that underpins the work of public policy – data – we can help drive research, and build an evidence base to support and drive policy that improves outcomes for Indigenous Australians.

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