elevenM’s Cassie Findlay explores Australia’s new data strategy and makes the case for re-framing our conversations about data to account for both social and economic outcomes.

Last week I prepared a submission on a preliminary discussion paper and skeletal outline of a new Australian Data Strategy that was recently shared with a group of stakeholders by the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (but not published as far as I can tell). I was keen to get an understanding of the Government’s thinking in this space, with the proposed Strategy just one of several initiatives which have the potential to dramatically alter the digital and data landscape in Australia, including the Artificial Intelligence Action Plan, the National Data Security Action Plan, the Consumer Data Right expansion and the Privacy Act 1988 review.  

In preparing the submission I was struck by the way in which the paper characterised the opportunity that the Government is looking for this Strategy to respond to. 

“What is the data opportunity? 

Data is an important national asset, and its value increases over time and as it is used for different purposes. Data will be a key driver of the future economy, with proven value in solving human and industry problems. The expanding opportunity in data is likely to be more important than any other single commodity in history.” 

What stood out to me in this passage was the separation of ‘industry’ from ‘human’ problems, and its mercantile sensibility, with data cast as a valuable ‘commodity’. 

In conversations with people working in this space I’ve often heard the gold rush analogy made about the moment we are in with respect to data and its role in society. While it can be a useful way to describe some of the more craven urges of the surveillance economy, it is problematic too, in that it paints data as something to be coveted and hoarded, and aligns its benefits with those of wealth accumulation.  

Of course, data can be put to use to build better and more effective ways doing business, but I would have liked to see more connections made in the outline to policy goals outside of economic growth, and more exploration of how a national strategy on data could build things to make the lives of all people in this country better.   

Data — created in the past, today and into the future  has the potential to shape new approaches to some of the most significant challenges of our time, from climate change to homelessness. It also has the power to affect sentiment and attitudes to evolving issues. As an archivist by training and background, I consider the vast holdings of archival institutions part of that picture: for example, over-time data dating from the 19th century is a critical asset for tracking the changing climate and its impact on the Australian landscape, and formulating our response. Data can also have a more immediate social impact; the COVID pandemic shows us clearly the need for well-kept and available data. It’s coming to us every day on our TV screens and on our phones, and it’s not just a reporting obligation that the relevant departments are fulfilling  it’s also about helping a scared and uncertain population understand what’s happening, what works and adjusting behaviours accordingly.   

The development of the Australian Data Strategy will be a rare opportunity for us to re-frame how we think and talk about data.  My view is that the way we create, keep and use data is as much about enabling social good and transformation, as it is about economic growthThis might seem obvious to those of us who work in data-heavy fields, and perhaps also to the people involved in drafting Strategy, but I feel it is important that the Government engage, explicitly, with these broader uses and value that data has to our society as the Strategy is formedOne way to start on this re-framing could be to askIf we are to judge the Data Strategy as a success down the track, what does that success look like? To what extent does it involve outcomes for people and communities that are not part of economic expansion?  

It’s early days so it will be interesting to see the draft Strategy evolve. I’ll be participating in an online roundtable on the Discussion paper and will be keen to hear more about it and next steps in its development.  

For more on the Australian Data Strategy go to https://digitaleconomy.pmc.gov.au/fact-sheets/data-and-digital-economy