Not closed, not open, and definitely not released

The new Data Availability and Transparency legislation is going to change the way the public service shares data, by making the process to share simpler, consistent and more secure.

It is easy to conflate open access or release of data with sharing data. So why are these concepts different and why is that distinction important?

The Australian Government currently has good practices in place for making non-sensitive data publicly available. Anyone can download it and it’s usually available in convenient, modifiable and accessible formats, published on the government website data.gov.au.

These datasets have enormous benefits for the Australian community and have resulted in some new and innovative applications, like the NRMA Safer Homes tool where you can enter your address and learn the risks in your area to help keep your home safer.

However, not all data can or should be made available for everyone and rightly, some datasets should remain closed. Closed data is only available for use within an organisation and may be highly sensitive or classified. In other cases, the dataset is closed because it can’t be shared due to laws written decades ago.

graphic showing the difference between open, closed and shared data

These two concepts are relatively simple, but what about release?

For some people, releasing data could refer to data being released to another user. For others, releasing data could mean the publication of data, such as in a report or as part of a database, or even the open release on data.gov.au, which this legislation does not cover. At the ONDC, we define release as open data that is made available to the world at large.

Our reforms were previously called the Data Sharing and Release legislative reforms. Because of the different interpretations of the word ‘release’ and the feedback we received in our latest round of consultations, ‘release’ has been removed from the title.

Sharing public sector data between government departments already happens, but the requirements are inconsistent and layered with bureaucratic red tape. In some cases, outdated secrecy provisions, which are no longer in step with today’s digital society, make sharing slow and inefficient, and in some cases impossible, even when it makes good sense to do so.

Under the Data Availability and Transparency legislative reforms, sharing data simply means:

Providing controlled access

If we unpack that a bit, it is not as simple as it sounds. While a key focus of the legislation is to streamline the process for sharing public sector data, it will by no means make it a free-for-all.

Controlled access aims to keep data safe and secure, meaning it is only used by the right people for the right purposes. This includes a requirement for individuals and organisations to be accredited by the Office of the National Data Commissioner and penalties for those who do the wrong thing.

The Data Sharing Principles must also be applied in a way that ensures risks are appropriately mitigated. Depending on the sensitivity of the dataset, this could mean tight controls are placed on how the data is accessed. For example, those controls could be IT controls, such as a secure data laboratory, or they could be contractual controls around what people can do with the data.  These controls will make sure that the data is only available to the right people. The National Data Commissioner will oversee the data sharing system to ensure that the controls are applied correctly.

For more information visit https://www.datacommissioner.gov.au/safeguards.

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