Big data and the public compact

Former minister Kim Carr has opened the Health Informatics Society of Australia’s inaugural Big Data conference with an impassioned speech about freeing up public data, urging the nation not to “squander” the “great compact between government and researchers”.

“I have taken the view that this should be an area in which there should be no controversy,” Senator Carr, who formerly held the Human Services and Industry, Innovation, Science and Research portfolios, said.

“After all, who could argue with the case that the Australian people are entitled to have information about themselves? And who would possibly argue the case that you should be anything other than accountable for the expenditure of public money?

“Who is not a fan of evidence-based policy? This is a term that is used thousands of times a year in the Parliament of Australia, but you’ll find in reality quite few people are – and we need to look at what that’s about.”

Senator Carr took aim at legislators’ timidity by quoting Yes, Minister arch-bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby’s quip that “if you don’t know what you’re doing, you don’t know what you’re doing wrong.”

Senator Carr told the conference’s 150 delegates he believed science and research had the power to solve most of the challenges facing society, and that government was in a unique position to harness that power.

“But we can’t rely on guesswork,” he said. “We can’t just trust our luck.”

In return for public investment, Senator Carr said researchers had a responsibility to “help us change the world”.

Addressing perceptions that personal data could be misused or individuals’ privacy infringed, he said that while much of the fear was overblown, it was necessary for citizens and industry to hold government to account.

“So long as we make the assumption that personal records have to remain confidential, we can take further steps to ensure confidence about that,” he said. “It should not be a blanket stopper to access to data.”

Senator Carr said it was during his time as Minister for Human Services that he saw the potential of big data. Every day the department has daily interactions with hundreds of thousands of citizens through Centrelink, Medicare and the child support agency.

It comprises 20 per cent of the public-sector workforce, 40 per cent of the federal budget, has 500 sites nationwide and an IT network five times larger than the Commonwealth Bank.

The amount of data held by the department constituted “a map of human society, how life is actually lived”, according to Senator Carr.

“The practical applications are staggering,” he said. “I can’t think of a limit on the opportunities here.”

Senator Carr said that one of the problems he encountered as a minister was the “great wall” put up between the public service and the government, where public servants made assumptions about the government’s position on policy.

However, he said ministers were supportive of allowing access to big data and that it was important for researchers to shore up that support.

“This is data that should be held on behalf of the people by the Commonwealth of Australia, not by the individual departments,” he said.

“[It should be] a practical and accessible portal for researchers – and there has to be, however, those practical partnerships with individual departments.

“It’s routine in other countries, and it’s an approach that we should follow in this country.

“We have the capacity to build a new country – and, together, I’m absolutely certain that that can be achieved.”

Big Data 2013 continues tomorrow in Melbourne.

Posted in Australian eHealth

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