Government’s $65m plan to establish a ‘National Data Commissioner’

By Stephen Easton

Tuesday May 1, 2018

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A new National Data Commissioner will independently manage the delicate balance between releasing open data from federal agencies for public benefit and risks to individual privacy, taking a lot of curly risk management decisions away from individual agencies.

Today’s announcement is the centrepiece of the Turnbull government’s long-awaited response to the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into Data Availability and Use.

Along with new consumer rights, allowing people to obtain some of their data from private companies, the government response also explains proposed legislation aimed at facilitating more data releases, sharing, integration and analysis.

Funding for the package of reforms is $65 million over four years, according to a joint statement from Human Services Minister Michael Keenan, who is responsible for the digital transformation portfolio, and assistant treasurer Michael Sukkar.

The new data commissioner’s first job will be to establish the “simpler and more efficient data sharing and release framework” described in the reform blueprint. And they will work together with the privacy commissioner “to ensure that the protection of individual privacy remains paramount”, the ministers promise.

Tied in with the government’s Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, today’s statement also suggests “transparency around government policy” will improve as a result of the reforms:

“Increased access to multiple data sets will give researchers the ability to see very quickly whether policies are working as intended, or if they need to be adjusted or abandoned altogether.”

“To enable the Data Commissioner to drive the cultural change needed within government agencies, new legislation will also be drafted to streamline data sharing and release arrangements within government, subject to stringent data safeguards.”

Keenan and Sukkar refer to the PC’s findings that various “barriers to data access were stifling innovation, competition, development and even important research opportunities that could benefit the entire community” and suggest public service risk aversion is one issue they hope to overcome, by putting more decisions in the hands of an independent statutory office.

“The [Productivity] Commission identified more than 500 different secrecy provisions and regulations that exist within government agencies that regulate the use and release of data,” they note.

“As a result of that complexity, many agencies had adopted a default position of saying “no” to requests for data access – even when the request has come from another government department or when the sensitivity of the information is low.”

The data commissioner will be “assisted in its oversight role” by a National Data Advisory Council, which will advise on ethical data use and technical best practice, run community consultations and keep on top of the latest developments in data science.

Centres of expertise in the public service known as Accredited Data Authorities will “manage which data sets are made public, as well as who can access them” — the Australian Bureau of Statistics will provide more information about this aspect of the reforms, and will also “provide technical guidance and support” to the commissioner.

Data sharing arrangements “along the lines of the Five Safes model” will be implemented, and especially “high-value” datasets will be identified.

“A cultural change is required from agencies to ensure greater data sharing within government and support for whole of-government initiatives and reforms,” explains the outline of the reforms.

“The new data sharing and release framework will support a drive for cultural change within government towards greater data sharing while mitigating the risks associated with sharing of personal data.

“Better legislative and governance arrangements will ensure government gets the maximum benefits from the data it already holds and collects while maintaining public trust in how data is being used.”

Getting straight to the kind of data that strikes fear into privacy advocates — health and medical information — Sukkar and Keenan say they have the backing of epidemiologist Fiona Stanley, a former Australian of the Year who believes the data reforms will help to save lives.

“In speaking with her about these changes, she highlighted one example of how a lack of access to data relating to medications prescribed to women during pregnancy was inhibiting the ability of researchers to spot any emerging trends such as birth defects that could be linked to new drugs,” the ministers state.

Don’t expect that to allay fears like those recently expressed about the ABS using smartphone data from Telstra to estimate temporary populations, however. On the whole, government agencies and ministers alike have seemed uncertain of how best to respond to such concerns, or how to get the public as excited about data as researchers like Professor Stanley.

“Australians have a right to know that their data is being used responsibly,” say the ministers. “That is why the new laws will ensure safeguards around privacy remain strong.”

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