Not all data are the same. Image sourced from

Data access inquiry casts the net far too wide

The Australian Productivity Commission has launched a public inquiry into access and use of public and private data.

The agenda of the inquiry is ambitious in both its timescale and its scope. So much so that it risks failing to achieve anything meaningful.

The inquiry will cover:

  1. Increasing the availability of public and private data sets to others in the public and private sectors
  2. Improving individuals’ access to data that relates to themselves
  3. Standards for the collection, sharing and release of public and private data
  4. Issues around privacy, confidentiality and data security of access

The promise of data

At the heart of the inquiry is the desire to uncover the range and extent of benefits coming out of the increased provision, access and use of this data. These benefits could be anything from better health and lives for Australians to increased productivity and opportunities for private and public organisations.

On the surface, it is quite reasonable to think that there would be positive uses for data coming out of the private and public sectors and even from individuals themselves. We have already seen a huge growth (in hype at least) in the use of “Big Data” being applied to everything from radio astronomy to working out which advertising to show to an individual on Facebook.

Like a number of governments worldwide, the Australian government already believes there is a benefit to open public data and has committed to the publication of open data through services like

The government has also overseen the formation of Data61 using the combined resources of CSIRO and National ICT Australia (NICTA). Part of Data61’s remit is to look at ways of using Big Data to drive innovation both in the public and private sectors.

Proving the benefits is hard

Evidence for the benefits of having widespread sharing of public and private data has been difficult to come by.

Data-driven innovation, open data and big data have been a major emphasis of research and analysis by the OECD which for the last six years been investigating many of the concepts and issues being covered by this particular inquiry.

The main thing the OECD has shown is the extent of the complexity in all of the aspects of data use. There are technical, commercial, legislative, social, privacy and other issues that cloud every facet of data production and use.

While the OECD has managed to deliver many case studies showcasing the benefits of data publication and sharing, it has been hard to quantify these benefits in any meaningful way. The Productivity Commission’s issue paper highlights two conflicting analyses of the overall benefits of, with one analysis claiming the benefits to be limited.

Not all data are the same

Having an inquiry of this sort may help to continue an ongoing conversation about the production and use of data in society. It is harder to believe that this format of investigation will be able to cover such a vast and complicated area by simply using submissions.

It is possible that the optimism about achieving anything meaningful out of this inquiry is misplaced and a result of the Productivity Commission believing that all “data” is essentially the same.

In this view, data collected by a government department and concerned with land use would be treated in the same way as personal health data collected by doctors and individuals. Clearly this isn’t the case. Different classes of data differ in many ways and are not just different sides of the same coin. One can’t look at personal health data in terms of privacy issues and say that the privacy concerns are the same as land data, differing only by degree. The issues involved are very different and require distinct process, regulation and legislation.

Small steps with data that we could take

There are of course specific things the Australian government could do to foster the use of data that would be to everyone’s benefit. In the health sector for example, Health Minister Sussan Ley has already announced the government’s intention to allow private sector access to information collected by the “My Health Record” system with an individual’s consent.

Private companies like those that manufacture fitness trackers already provide individuals and third parties with access to their data. This has helped foster a more comprehensive health and wellbeing industry with better information and data being provided to the individual’s own data.

Encouraging these sorts of behaviours in other industries would certainly be a positive outcome from this inquiry. The trouble is that because the scope of the inquiry is so broad, tangible understanding of achievable recommendations could be lost.