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Helping Australians get more out of public data through data.gov.au

The Australian Government is on a mission to embrace the idea of open government data to drive new ideas and innovation. Recently, we spoke about this with Pia Waugh, who champions the idea of Government as an API and the belief that data is crucial to a government being responsive.

OpenGov reached out to Helen Owens, Principal Advisor for Public Data Policy, Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, to get her take on the recent developments in the Government’s public data policy and strategy. We asked her some questions about what she will be focused on this year and how some recent announcements have impacted the work by her team.

What do you do in your role as Principal Advisor for Public Data Policy?

The Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet (PM&C) is the lead agency on public data policy across the Australian Public Service, and on whole-of-government digital transformation policy.

I lead a team that is responsible for providing whole of government policy advice on the Australian Government’s public data strategy.  This includes delivering: a world class public data infrastructure; our national spatial data infrastructure; a data skills development program to improve efficiency and productivity in the Commonwealth; and a range of programs to increase the availability and use of non-sensitive anonymised public sector data in the wider economy.  

What are your key objectives for this year?

There are a few priorities that my team and I will be progressing this year focused on helping Australians to get more value out of public data. Some of these initiatives are outcomes following the release in December 2015 of the Australian Government Public Data Policy Statement and the Public Sector Data Management Report, both of which are available on the PM&C website, www.dpmc.gov.au.

During 2016, my team will work closely with our state and territory government colleagues to collaborate on appropriately sharing and linking public data. The state and territory governments hold valuable data from their interactions with Australians and are at the forefront of improving accessibility to data. By integrating or sharing this data across jurisdictions, we can improve service delivery and decision making from the insights we derive from data.

We are also working with our colleagues in the public and research sectors to develop a data skills and capability programme for the Australian Public Service. Data analysis and related skills are increasingly becoming considered a core skill. We want public servants to have the tools they need to effectively interrogate and draw conclusions from data.

We will also continue to progress and promote location data initiatives where possible. In today’s digitally mobile world, location-based (or spatial) data influences almost everything we do. Access to spatial data is becoming increasingly important given the rapid take-up and use of mobile devices in Australia. For example, combining location data with other data enables users to visualise the data using tools like nationalmap.gov.au, more effectively linking that data with a particular area on the Earth.  We are also leading the work on behalf of ANZLIC – the Spatial Information Council on the Australia and New Zealand Foundation Spatial Data Framework.

How are you working to create transparency in government through your project?                                            

Transparency is an important part of my Branch’s work, as is improving the availability of data to help grow the economy, improve service delivery and efficiencies across Government, stimulate innovation and transform policy outcomes for the nation.

One simple way we are helping to increase transparency is by with working with Australian Government agencies to increase the quality and quantity of public data that is made openly available.

There have been cases where we have worked with government agencies to make data openly available that is commonly requested through Freedom of Information or other channels. Doing so has resulted in savings to agencies by improving efficiencies across government. I look forward to continuing this work across the government.

Let's talk IoT, How do you plan to use the mass amounts of data being produced from this growing IoT sphere?

The Government is working with industry to ensure the right policy and regulatory environment is available for IoT technology to thrive in Australia.

I have recently participated in the Communications Alliance Internet of Things Think-Tank, a group comprising representatives from the Government, telecommunications industry bodies and a number of high tech organisations that seek to understand and develop the framework needed to best take advantage of IoT in Australia.  

The Think Tank has had a huge interest from many other sectors and is now morphing into a new organisation called IoT Alliance Australia and I will be remaining engaged with that community to ensure that Public Sector data, systems and processes are aligned with the requirements of the IoT environment but more importantly to ensure that the privacy of our citizens is fully considered in this emerging policy space.

I recognise that through analysing the vast amount of data generated through IoT, we could gain insights into a wide range of matters. For example, analysis on IoT data could help improve efficiencies with transport and logistics, identify healthcare trends, and monitor environmental matters remotely.

However, I want to reiterate the importance of ensuring that all data, whether generated through citizens’ transactions with government or through IoT, has appropriate protections and safeguards in place.

What impact has the Australia Public Data Policy Statement had on the efforts of data.gov.au?

The Policy Statement has certainly increased awareness of data.gov.au since it was released on 7 December 2016 as part of the Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda.

Among other things, the Policy Statement provides a mandate for the government to engage more with state and territory governments and to build more partnerships with the public, private and research sectors. We are doing just that, with data.gov.au playing an important public-facing role in facilitating access to public data.

My team plans to work with our state and territory government colleagues to link the back-end infrastructure of each government’s data portal website, positioning data.gov.au as a one-stop-shop for data held by all levels of Australian governments.

Can you explain the role of the Open Government Partnership? What kind of feedback have you received from its members?

Australia has a long and proud history of open government, being one of the most transparent, accountable and engaged democracies in the world. However, there is always more that can be done. The aim for the first Australian Government National Action Plan is to include ambitious actions that support the Open Government Partnership (OGP) grand challenges of “improving public services” and “better managing public resources.”

The timing of Australia’s entry to the OGP puts us in a good position to learn from our fellow members’ experiences, but it also provides us with challenges around generating sufficiently difficult Action Plan commitments. We have the opportunity to deliver significant progress in our nominated grand challenges, and the work that the Digital Transformation Office was established to deliver will be one of the key factors in this, along with the adoption of the outcomes of the Public Sector Data Management Review.

The feedback received from civil society and the public has, by and large, been supportive of the process, and there has been some very good engagement to date with a relatively broad range of stakeholders. We are embracing the opportunity for the public, civil society, and the private sector to contribute ideas for how public services can be improved. As we approach the midpoint of our public consultation and drafting process, we look forward to seeing these ideas develop into well considered potential commitments for the Government’s consideration.                                                                                                                              

Anything else you would like to share with our audience?

I am excited about a particular initiative that my team has been working on, the open release of the Geocoded National Address File. The Australian Government has entered into an agreement with PSMA Australia Limited to release one of the most requested ubiquitous, high-value datasets to the economy, PSMA’s Geocoded National Address File (G-NAF), and their Administrative Boundaries datasets.

The G-NAF and Administrative Boundaries datasets will be published under an open data licence at no cost to end users on data.gov.au in February 2016.

Making these datasets available under open data terms will remove barriers to greater use of the data, and create opportunities for industry, innovation and competitiveness.           

I invite your audience to visit the PM&C website, www.dmpc.gov.au, and keep an eye on the data.gov.au blog, blog.data.gov.au, for more information about my team’s work and announcements.

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