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Opinion_

Data initiative a breakthrough but it’s not all smooth sailing

1 September 2015
Data is our digital currency, argues Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte in The Australian

Data is the digital currency of our world and if managed well it can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights and deliver better outcomes for society.

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte

This era of big data presents incredible opportunities — smarter cities, stronger companies, new jobs and better medicine — but it also presents challenges. The establishment of the recently announced NSW government Data Analytics Centre is a unique opportunity for business, universities and the state ­government to forge a partnership and deliver on data-driven opportunities.

When the NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation, Victor Dominello, announced his intention to establish the DAC he said its purpose was to liberate all of the government’s data — too often buried away in silos — and provide a centralised analytics and insight capability for government decision making.

For those of us at the data analytics forefront the DAC announcement is terrific. By bringing information together, the government will be able to make more informed decisions and better allocate scarce resources. It also allows the NSW government to consolidate the expertise held in the data analytics centres in its Health, Justice and Education departments.

The opportunities start with the use of data in making more informed decisions. In regional Australia, the data around soils, crops, weather and water can be melded with data from supply chains and global commodities markets, to yield the right decision-making tools for everyone from farmers to fire services.

Meanwhile, in health and social services, cross-linking data from local area health authorities with data about environment, access to social amenities and education, can lead to effective decisions about personal and preventive care.

There’s also an opportunity to drive innovation in the private sector. International studies have shown that open data in government allows private firms to make better decisions around investment in infrastructure and skills. One local example of this is National Map (nationalmap.gov.au) that provides an open portal to spatial data from over 30 government agencies (federal, state and local), allowing companies engaged in areas as diverse as agriculture, construction and retail, to make use of data in making more informed investments.

Another related opportunity is the development and growth of new data technology companies and knowledge jobs. Analytics is already playing a big role in the fintech and medtech sectors and the DAC could help extend this trend into start-ups in other sectors, such as transport or agriculture.

But it’s not all smooth sailing, because managing privacy and security concerns won’t be easy. Locking all the data up is clearly not the answer but personal, sensitive data will need to be secured, controlled and managed. There’s an opportunity here for the DAC to be innovative with new ideas in security, from the use of encrypted data portals to concepts such as personally controlled data vaults.

The involvement of the NSW Information Commissioner and the NSW Privacy Commissioner on the inaugural DAC Board is a good start but the DAC needs to engage the technology community in the discussion.

A second challenge for government is to resist thinking of the DAC as just another “large IT system”. There is a sorry record for the development of large IT or database systems in the public service sector and data does not need to be handled this way. The DAC should focus on connecting data and creating open tools that make this information available and useful to the right decision makers.

NSW is taking a transformational lead in data science. It’s critical the potential of this partnership between businesses, universities and citizens is realised.

Hugh Durrant-Whyte is the professor of Mechatronic Engineering at University of Sydney.

First published in The Australian 

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