An introduction to data

Data is a complex term that can mean different things to different people; so when we talk about government data, what do we mean?  

Government data, also termed ‘public sector data’, is all the information (numbers, statistics, facts, concepts or other information) that is collected, held and used by the Australian Government.

The Australian Government holds a wide range of data that has been provided by individuals, businesses, universities and more. Data can be information provided to the government when a member of the public has applied for a service or support. A lot of data held by government is not about people, such as data on weather patterns or freight movements, but it all contributes to making a better society for everyone.


The Australian Government is working to develop better, more seamless services to the public. To do this, we need to modernise how we manage the wealth of information supplied by Australians to various government agencies.

Governments use and share data to undertake research, develop programs and improve policies and services. While data sharing already happens, the current processes and protections can be inconsistent, or sometimes don’t allow for data sharing, which limits the potential of Australia’s data to create a better society for everyone.

The Data Availability and Transparency legislation is about streamlining the sharing of government data within government and with accredited users, where it benefits the Australian community, for policy and programs, research, and government services.

Open, closed, released and shared data

The new legislation focuses on tapping into the abundant opportunities available in the space between open data and closed data, where data can be shared, subject to appropriate safeguards and controls.

Open, closed shared graphic

The interim National Data Commissioner wrote a blog post which provides an overview on the difference between open, closed, released and shared data.

Benefits of data sharing

Data underpins, informs and influences everything we do. From weather forecasts or real-time fuel prices through an app, to the ‘like’ counts on our social media – often without realising it, we are interacting with data all the time. 

Using government data effectively can deliver improved government policies, program implementation and service delivery, and generate great benefits for Australian people and organisations, including:

  • Pre-filling forms: simplifying how citizens fill in forms by pre-filling them with information already provided to the government, similar to the way myTax works.
  • Reducing over-collection of data across the government by sharing existing data across government agencies and reducing the collection burden on individuals. For example, if you report your circumstances to one government agency to receive a service, you would not need to provide the same information again to another government agency to receive other services.
  • Improving capability and the quality of research outcomes from Australia’s universities and research institutions.
  • Better understanding of problems to design better policies and programs.

Find out more about how data is used.

The cost of not sharing

You are probably keenly aware of the risks around data sharing and storage when it is not managed well, like potential data breaches, privacy concerns or misuse of data. But when data can be shared safely, there is a broader cost to society if it isn’t.

Closed data protects privacy, but carries the risk that research is developed without the best information; government policies may not be targeted where they are most needed; and people could find it difficult to access government services. Closed data also keeps the Australian public in the dark about what government does with the data it collects and holds. It runs the risk of leading to flawed policy and research.

Over the past 100 years, more than 500 different provisions limiting the use information held by government agencies have entered into federal law. Some are still appropriate and necessary, but many are out of step with modern society thanks to advances in information technology not envisaged when they were written.

This can prevent agencies from sharing information and coordinating efficiently to deliver better health, education and other important community and social services.

It’s time to modernise and bring our government information sharing into the 21st century.