Two hands shaking

(QESP Editor’s Note: The following is a reprint of a 16.11.2016 article in The Mandarin.  The original is available at )

Has data de-identification and consumer trust already been solved by industry while the public sector slumbered? Should government prioritise choice or control? A data exchange start-up co-founder discusses unintended consequences.

It was with great anticipation that I opened the Productivity Commission’s 652-page Data availability and use draft report this month. As the co-founder of a data exchange start-up, belief in the power and potential for data to solve problems and unlock productivity is something I live and breathe every day.

For some time now, I’ve believed Australia is falling behind when it comes to contemporary data policy, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting this report — my team at Data Republic made a submission.

The intent of the draft report is a revolution of the country’s data policy framework. The proposed reforms are significant. Overall they represent a paradigm shift away from a system of risk aversion and avoidance to one based on transparency and confidence in data processes.

And, while we welcome this intent, the nuance in that rhetoric is that consumers and businesses need to move to an environment where data isn’t another four letter word, but a system based on trust, particularly:

  1. trust in the infrastructure for collecting and storing data
  2. trust in the people, systems and machines using data
  3. trust in how organisations use data

Without systems and infrastructure, as data becomes more available we are going to see more risks taken by firms searching for yield improvements. Just like the banks engendered public trust in storing money two centuries ago, we are trying to build a trust framework to help firms manage the process and risk of the infrastructure; the people, systems and machines; and the organisations using and sharing data.

It is our firm view, reflected in the views of global counterparts like the US, with policies on open data, that it is the government’s role to regulate enterprise use of data and protect the rights of consumers when it comes to infrastructure and the people and systems using it via guidelines as well as creating an environment where the true potential of data can be discovered.  We need to remember that data, by itself, is not bad or good, it is only how it is used and by whom that can be the cause for any concerns.

Liquidity and innovation with data will unlock huge advances across every field of human endeavour, including:

  • government and enterprise productivity
  • medical advancements via causal relationships not previously thought to be existing
  • personalised products and services for consumers

Moving to a data system based on transparency and trust is exciting, not least because of consumer empowerment but also because the reforms ultimately transform the current ad hoc approach.

Through these reforms, data will be made more liquid and able to move between organisations to touch all parts of the Australian economy. From encouraging operational efficiencies to identifying gaps for innovation, boosting competition with expanded products and services and potentially carving out market opportunities for entirely new business models.

Undoubtedly, the draft report represents a major step forward for Australian data policy, however the implications for the proposed implementation and enforcement of these reforms for the private and public sector must be considered.

It is my belief that further thought and detail should be given to three priority questions:

  1. Bureaucratic rigmarole

Recognising the potential of a government agency to manage the availability of datasets, more consideration needs to be given to the processes involved and to whether a new government department is needed.

Our experience in data exchange has demonstrated that a flexible approach and the ability to expedite the management of data transparency, access and compliance issues is needed.

With a government agency charged with opening data from the private sector and streamlining the availability of national datasets, we need further detail and assurances that data availability will not be caught up in bureaucratic rigmarole.

  1. Availability of private sector data

Although the government will have the power to define the datasets available to the public, there is uncertainty around the extent to which data from the private sector will be mandated to become accessible.

The private sector will need further guidance on the datasets to be made available and direction around making best practices choices on data collection an analysis, ensuring that consumer data is used in an ethical way.

  1. Consumer choice vs control

The control provided to consumers under the Comprehensive Right will empower public trust in the framework, however we must question the extent to which an end-individual is given responsibility to understand and respond to the potential a dataset could have on our economy, the context of each exchange and understanding of the complexities in analysing data and the outcomes that could be key to solving key problems such as cancer. Could too much consumer control be detrimental to a comprehensive nationwide open data policy because they only want to see data used in their interest? Could we devalue the fidelity and accuracy of key datasets from non-participation?

Echoing the sentiments of ADMA, I would argue that consumers should have choice rather than control and this might mean re-thinking how much control is given to the consumer.

Supporting the underlying data exchange industry

The PC’s inquiry into data sharing is timely. In the few years since the inception of Data Republic, we’ve spoken with over 250 organisations across public, private and not-for-profit sectors in Australia and overseas about data sharing and organisational data governance.

A common theme of these discussions is how organisations can overcome ethical, legal and technological barriers to effective data use — from ingestion to the management of collection to developing high-value datasets.

Many organisations are in a state of transition with their data management and struggle with the required security, governance and consumer privacy ramifications of collecting and using customer data safely. Indeed, that’s why we founded Data Republic and have spent over three years developing the technology infrastructure to enable secure and privacy complaint data exchange.

When it comes to sweeping reform around comprehensive rights for consumers to be notified each time their data is collected and used, or the right to a machine-readable record of all data points ever collected about them, we must be mindful of the potential burden this would place on organisations that do not have large data teams or are still implementing master data management policies and technologies.

Here the topic of consumer privacy in data exchange comes to the fore.

In our journey to empower the liquidity of data and sharing between organisations, Data Republic has sought to re-establish the principles of trust, security and governance by building private by design infrastructure which allows organisations to de-identify, encrypt and store customer identities away from attribute-related datasets on our platform. This preserves individual privacy while facilitating secure access to attribute level information for research and insights.

A problem industry has already solved

If our goal is to use open data policy to drive innovation and productivity in Australia, then it is my belief that we should leverage the work and technology infrastructure which has already been built to solve the challenge of protecting consumers while opening up data for greater analysis. This is a problem we believe we have already solved.

Australia has the potential to be a global leader in data policies. Overhauling existing data framework policies is a step in the right direction however we must be considered and effective in our execution to achieve this goal.

Importantly, both private and government organisations must balance this, the greatest productivity opportunity of the century, with the protection and rights of the consumer. For the true potential of data to be realised in our economy, we must all — government, private sector and most importantly individual citizens — have trust in the systems we put in place.

Paul McCarney is the chief executive and co-founder of Data Republic and spoke at the GovInnovate Workshop on data sharing and interoperability alongside experts from the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner, CSIRO and the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

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