An introduction to data

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

Data is any facts, statistics, instructions, concepts or other information in a form that is capable of being communicated, analysed or processed (whether by an individual or by other means including a computer, electronic, and automated means). 

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. 

Open, closed and shared data

The proposed reforms have started an important conversation about how Government uses, shares and makes data available. Until recently, the discussions within the Australian Government have only been about open or closed data, we want to shift the conversation to sharing data. 

Open data release fuels curiosity, benefits the economy and leads to new and innovative ideas; but it also carries privacy and security risks — once released, data cannot be retracted or protected against future uses and misuses. 

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 citizens 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.

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. 

Improved data access and use can enable new products and services that transform everyday life, drive efficiency and safety, create productivity gains and allow better decision making.

There are challenges to using data effectively

At the moment, there are hundreds of legal restrictions which can make it difficult or, in some cases, impossible to share data between government departments or outside of government, even where there would be clear benefits from doing so. This can mean that you need to provide the same information to multiple departments many times. 

Making dealing with government easier and more efficient is just one of the reasons that new data sharing and transparency legislation is needed. 

Not all data held by governments is particularly sensitive, such as historical rainfall levels, flood levels or crop yields. When data sharing involves more sensitive information, such as people's income levels, or business profits and losses, the sharing needs to be managed carefully and responsibly with appropriate safeguards included at every stage.

The Office of the National Data Commissioner is drafting new legislation to streamline public sector data sharing, subject to appropriate safeguards.

Value of data

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. 

Australian people and organisations provide data to government agencies every day, and those agencies are responsible for keeping the data safe and secure. Agencies are required to have safeguards in place to protect data – like privacy and secrecy legislation, secure buildings and IT systems, and strict requirements on employees who have access to data.

Using public sector data effectively can deliver improved government policy development, program implementation and service delivery and generate great benefits for Australian people and organisations. For that to occur, it is critical that Australians have trust in how government agencies use and share the data they collect.

Trust helps the government harness the full potential of data it holds 

Improved sharing of public sector data will enable government agencies to better serve the needs of the community through better planning, policies, programs and service delivery. 

Transparency and accountability are critical to public acceptance and trust. They will be pillars of the proposed data reforms.

Open data

Where datasets are non-sensitive, they may be publicly released on provides an easy way to find, access and re-use public datasets from different levels of government. provides access to tens of thousands different datasets, including:

  • energy rating data for household appliances
  • data on the number of people leaving or arriving in Australia
  • real-time information about fuel prices at service stations across New South Wales
  • locations of drinking fountains and public barbecues in the City of Melbourne
  • information on skill shortages in the Australian labour market, at the national and state or territory level.