DataStart isn't innovation, it's just a lame reality TV clone

The Australian government's startup competition is all about innovation, we're told. It'll all be wonderful. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

DataStart, eh? There's a bunch of Startupland buzzwords in the press release about how it "advances the government's election commitment to work with the private sector on data-related, joint public-private projects." But you know what? It's just some lame competition.

In the coming months, you can expect plenty of self-congratulatory photo opportunities where wide-eyed startup hopefuls pose awkwardly with executives from DataStart's partners: Optus, Google, PwC Australia, CSIRO's Data61, Rozetta, and the Australian Information Industry Association. Those organisations will all get plenty of feel-good PR. Bravo.

But what about us? What do we, the taxpayers, get?

A startup.

One startup.

"The winning startup will be decided through a competitive selection process, culminating in a showcase event on 18 January 2016. Shortlisted applicants will pitch their ideas to a panel of judges from government, industry and investment organisations, with their ideas judged on criteria such as the level of innovation and commercial viability," the government press release said.

DataStart is basically just The X Factor for Startups, except you don't even get James Blunt as a judge, let alone Dannii Minogue.

Despite the fact that DataStart involves respected Australian incubator Pollenizer, and despite the fact that Right Click Capital stands ready to throw in AU$200,000 seed funding -- or not, if they decide the winner still ain't good enough -- it's really little more than a PR stunt to boost the Turnbull government's nimble-agile-disrupto-cred.

And yet...

The Australian Financial Review's story on DataStart caught my eye on Monday morning.

"Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will throw open the government's big data files for entrepreneurs to crowdsource the best start-up ideas across key government services including healthcare, transport and tax administration," wrote the Fin.

But haven't we been told, repeatedly, that big data is the new oil? It's a valuable asset. If that's the case, let's rewrite that paragraph slightly.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will throw open the government's coffers for entrepreneurs to plunder, etc etc etc.

All this big data was collected, maintained, and stored at taxpayer expense. Now it's being "thrown open", for all those public-spirited investors in Startupland to do whatever they like with it. I don't imagine they'll be reluctant to make some massive profits along the way.

When I floated these thoughts on Twitter on Monday morning, I ended up in discussion with technology entrepreneur Bartek Marnane.

"Looking forward to the innovative applications that will result from this data access, great the govt is providing it," Marnane said.

Well, as an entrepreneur, he would be happy with free data to mine. But while the data may be available to all, not everyone is in a position to build an app to profit from it. The data is only of direct value to those with the resources to mine it.

"Good thing that coding will now be part of the primary school curriculum," Marnane said.

"Yes," I replied. "The kids will be able to pick up whatever's left after 15 years of VC-funded plunder. Great stuff."

Cynicism? Sure. But perhaps we should instead frame this as caution.

I worry when the government is basically giving away a public asset to a "community" -- can we call Startupland a community, or is just that the sharks happen to be swimming in the same direction? -- a community that's besotted by buzzwords under conditions of extreme haste. After all, talking fast, stressing the need for immediate action, and making sure you have no time to think, is the modus operandi of con-men everywhere.

On Friday, Dungeons & Dragons playing Senator Scott Ludlam was asked -- yes, this is how we report politics in Australia -- "If Parliament was a game of D&D, what would Malcolm Turnbull play as?"

"A fairly high-level illusionist," Ludlam replied.


As Turnbull will happily remind you, he was once a partner with investment banking firm Goldman Sachs, the company famously described by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi as "a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money".

Turnbull knows how to suck the value out of your assets faster than you can say "Abracadabra".

But don't worry, boys and girls, it's all about innovation. It's agile. It's nimble. It's disruptive. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

Editorial standards