CSIRO and the politics of data

James Riley
Editorial Director

You have to wonder how the CSIRO found itself used as an elaborate prop in the delivery of a mean-spirited and pointless political wedge via Treasurer Scott Morrison’s second budget.

Can you imagine commissioning the brightest taxpayer-funded data analytics minds to attack an under-class of fellow citizens? The government did and it is shameful.

The government plans to apply drug-tests to “randomly” selected welfare recipients. Yet it will harness the CSIRO and its Data61 unit to use “data-driven profiling” tools to ensure the targets of these tests are anything but random.

Political footy: The CSIRO’s data research unit Data61 needs more autonomy

Of all the challenges facing the world, this is where Australia chooses to apply its publicly-funded data analysis powers.

The CSIRO declined to respond to legitimate queries about its involvement in the initiative from InnovationAus.com. It has gone utterly silent, politically whipped, and apparently having forgotten its purpose.

There is an issue of public trust here. If the CSIRO cannot explain its role, if it cannot make sense – for general consumption – of the profound technology changes that are influencing our society, public support for the organisation will continue to erode.

It boasts on its website that; “We do the extraordinary every day. We innovate for tomorrow and help improve today – for our customers, all Australians and the world.”

How exactly does steering the government to potential clusters of drug users among welfare recipients involve innovation and improving the lives of all Australians? Especially at a time when there are much greater existential challenges facing the nation and the planet.

Nowhere is this national conversation more important than in the data sciences, the information sciences, at the CSIRO business unit Data61. The research undertaken by Data61 has the potential to impact each of us, every business, every school, every hospital.

To achieve this full potential, Data61 must also lead the national conversation on the importance of information and the impact that technology will have on us all. It must help parents understand what the future looks like, and what school subjects will best equip their children to deal with it. To help small businesses and major enterprises understand what they need to do to engage, to survive and thrive in a data-driven world.

Data61 is a critical asset for Australia. It is building the skills and capacity that will drive new industries – and jobs – across an economy that is in rapid transformation.

But against a backdrop in Australia where five million jobs will be lost in the next decade because of automation (according to CEDA), Data61 has got to be able to explain the Why and How, in order to bring the community along. This is so important.

Yet, Data61 treats communications as an afterthought instead of a core mission. It is entirely reactive. And even in this it is poor.

Right now, in Australia, we are struggling to build mainstream thinking around these issues. The communications component is fundamental. It is not an ancillary function, it is central. The impact of technology, of automation, of data analytics needs to be the national barbecue topic.

There was always going to be a point of reckoning, where outsiders stood back and judged whether the merger of the independent ICT research agency NICTA with the CSIRO’s digital productivity flagship was a good idea.

From where I’m standing, you would have to say no. To delve into ancient history, NICTA was set up in the Howard era as Australia’s response to the original dotcom boom. There was a reason it was set up outside of CSIRO – because of John Howard’s and Richard Alston’s (then communications minister) suspicion of CSIRO’s deep inertia.

When NICTA was folded into the CSIRO, CEO Larry Marshall said he hoped NICTA culture would influence the CSIRO, rather than it simply be consumed into the larger organisation.

If this has happened it is not visible from the outside. From here it looks like the stuff that is meant to be fast moving. Has. Slowed. Down.

Watching Data61 chief executive Adrian Turner is like watching a man running through treacle. You can see the incredible effort, but not the movement.

He has a giant task, and knows there is a finite window of time. Australia will either restructure itself to tap the opportunities on offer, or it will struggle. That will make life a bit harder for everyone in this country.

Data61 needs more autonomy, not less. I know ‘agile’ as a term has become a parody, but this is an organisation that cannot perform its service to the country under the same strictures which bind the rest of the CSIRO so tight.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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