James Riley
November 8, 2016

Peter Harris on the data economy

Data

Peter Harris on the data economy

Peter Harris: Wants to use a crow-bar to open up new data sets, and make data exchange easier

The Productivity Commission has come up with a good balance in its draft proposals of how to approach the massive data flows of the twenty-first century.

In its draft report on Data Availability and Use, the Commission tries hard to walk the line between handing data sovereignty back to private individuals and helping enable a free-flow universe for the big data sets that will transform business, research and consumer cloud services in the future.

The draft was released last week for consultation and input ahead of the final report which is due in March.

The report attempts to wake Australian organisations from their zombie sleep around the implications of data collection, sharing, general use and privacy, and Productivity Commission chairman Peter Harris has let his agency go hard on its recommendations.

The most powerful recommendation is one that upholds individual control over pertinent data. The Commission frames it as a Comprehensive Right for people to access digitally-held data about themselves.

That right over what is held is backed by another right over data collection. The Commission recommends people should have the right, at any time, to opt out of a data collection process.

There are exceptions to this overlord opt-out rule, including data collected as a condition of continued delivery of a product or service; to satisfy legal obligations or legal claims; collection of data for necessary public interest purposes and data used as part of a National Interest Dataset.

A following recommendation provides the stick to enforce these rights, with the Commission calling for oversight and complaint handling to be handed to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, and to existing industry ombudsmen.

Hopefully these twenty first century data rights will remain in the final report and be adopted by the government, along with their enforcement teeth.

If so the Comprehensive Right is going to create some interesting access problems for public and private organisations that hold great gobbets of individual information. Think telco’s, banks, insurers, health providers and all layers of government.

With those individual rights covered off the Commission gets stuck into enabling, controlling and linking the big data universe of tomorrow.

Treasurer Scott Morrison set the Commission in motion on its great data trek back in March, telling the agency to go forth and find the data and the best ways to wrangle it.

In the words of the scoping document the Commission should:

(a) identify the characteristics and provide examples of public sector datasets that would provide high-value to the public sector, research sector, academics and the community to assist public sector agencies to identify their most valuable data

(b) examine legislation or other impediments that may unnecessarily restrict the availability and linking of data, including where the costs are substantial, and consider options to reduce or remove those impediments.

Given that brief, someone at the Commission has a sense of humour.

The first finding in the draft report is titled ‘Data, data, everywhere’.

Perhaps the headline writer should have followed up the line in draft finding 3.1 with ‘but not a drop to drink.’

That draft finding says Australia’s open access to data is below comparable countries, including the US and the UK. It says there is considerable room to improve the range of datasets published, and the usability of open data portals.

Another finding gives the public sector a blast over a lack of enthusiasm for data sharing.
The Commission finds ‘there is no shared vision amongst public sector data holders in Australia on how to consistently deliver widespread data sharing and release. The community — current and future — is entitled to expect such a vision.’

It calls for comprehensive reform of Australia’s data infrastructure, so as to signal that active data is a green lighted opportunity.

The public sector gets hit with the other shotgun barrel in another finding which says much of the public sector has a reluctance to share or release data, and this entrenched culture ‘greatly inhibits data discovery, analysis and use.’

The Commission says all Australian Government agencies should create comprehensive, easy to access data registers by 1 October 2017 and publish these registers on data.gov.au.

It also suggests reforming and reviewing the more than 500 secrecy and privacy provisions in Commonwealth legislation that put limitations on the availability and use of government data.

A possible bombshell for private sector data holders sits inside a recommendation which says that while the private sector is best placed to figure out data sharing arrangements between firms, if the private sector can’t adequately enable data access and transfer (including where sought by consumers), then the government should step in and make it happen.

The commission is seeking submissions on the draft report and will conduct public hearings on the draft report in Melbourne on 21 November and in Sydney on 28 November.

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