Australia's stats chief on being a public data steward

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Australia's stats chief on being a public data steward

Opinion: The case for more big data projects.

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about big data and how government and others treat your personal information.

This is an important discussion for Australia. It is a discussion that must balance the growing global demand for more information with an individual’s right to privacy.

For the ABS, it’s about achieving both effective and safe use of data.

There is no doubt that big data presents unique opportunities. It can help to inform Australia’s key decisions, enable sound use of taxpayer funds through better targeting of government programs and policies, and assist with an informed community, contributing to our democracy.

As Australian statistician, it is my job to ensure the ABS is delivering solutions that make best use of existing public data while, wherever possible, also reducing the burden of citizens and businesses completing surveys.

However, I recognise that community trust in the security of their personal information has been tarnished in recent years by a number of high-profile incidents, largely in the private sector.

The ABS, as the steward of a wealth of data, understands these concerns. Every year we receive sensitive data from individuals, families and businesses to produce essential statistics. We take our duty to protect this information very seriously.

We have very strong legislative provisions, reinforced by ABS practices, ICT, systems and culture. And we are continuing to enhance our protections. What’s more we are absolutely committed to operating with openness, transparency and accountability.

This is clearly demonstrated by the fact that there has never been a breach of privacy involving Census data - one of Australia’s biggest and most important data sets.

The ABS project to use aggregated and anonymised Telstra data also shows how we can use available information without breaching privacy.

Phone numbers, names or other identifying information were not provided to the ABS, and we did not require this to produce the statistics from this project.

This project measured hourly changes in population numbers in different postcodes across the ACT at different times and days, providing information for businesses, researchers and government to deliver more targeted services to areas in need.

For example, this data could be used to inform the locations or timing of public transport, parking availability for major sporting events, or opening hours for tourist attractions and shops.

In fact, big data can actually provide some opportunity to enhance privacy by taking advantage of existing data rather than imposing new surveys on households and business.

This has the added bonus of realising savings for taxpayers as it reduces ABS’ data collection costs.

Of course, not all big data is useful or representative, and there must be judgment around utility. Increasingly though, we are making better use of information from government, the commercial sector or from big data to produce relevant statistics.

Examples include using supermarket scanner data and internet information to better compile the consumer price index (CPI), or collating information from a range of government sources to produce our official population estimates.

There are those that would seek to fear monger, to reduce or marginalise what the ABS could do.

Conversely, there are those who would seek to have no boundaries around the use of personal and business information for research purposes, irrespective of the risks to sensitive personal or business information.

The ABS is pursuing a balanced approach - safe and effective use of data that can inform important decisions for governments, business and households, while not compromising sensitive information.

We will only use your information for legitimate statistical purposes, to support policy and research, to aid decision making and understanding of the economy, society, population and the environment.

Strong community trust is critical to our ability to deliver high quality, timely statistics. Keeping your information safe is essential to ensuring we receive accurate responses to our data collections and high level, voluntary compliance with our survey and Census program.

Equally, making better use of representative big data will be critical for providing the information Australia needs to progress into the future.

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