​Dominello attributes data passion to his time as indigenous affairs minister

NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello has said it was his tenure as the state's indigenous affairs minister that opened his eyes up to why data collection is so vital for citizens.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

During his time as New South Wales Minister for Aboriginal Affairs in 2011-2015, Victor Dominello visited the remote town of Bourke, approximately 800 kilometres north-west of Sydney. He said what he found was a community of about 3,000 with an alarming statistic: One in every five indigenous people were incarcerated.

"In that population of 3,000, there was over 50 human service providers. You would have thought with that degree of saturation of human service delivery of government and non-government organisations looking after that community, you would have pretty good outcomes," Dominello said.

"If you think of the expenditure, it's probably the equivalent of AU$50,000 or AU$100,000 per person if you add it all up."

Despite the amount of services in the area, the current Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation said the incarceration rate was the highest in the world.

"The stories I can tell you about aboriginal affairs and the policy of decision-making based on a paucity of data would make you cry," he said.

He said he simply wanted to get some data around what was happening on the ground, but in his attempt to do so he was met with a wall.

"I thought in government -- when I was outside of government -- that people like me would be pressing a button saying: 'Yes there are 47 service providers out there, 20 of which are dealing with drug and alcohol, 15 which are handling domestic violence, 13 are focused on preventing child sexual abuse'. Nope," Dominello said.

"For us to do that I would need to get -- and I did get -- a group of ministers from health, family and community services, education, we all got in the one room and decided we needed to get a better understanding of these remote areas, and we wrote out to the agencies, and they came back and they gave us data.

"It took us three months and by the time we got the data it was historical, yet we were making on the ground, right there and then."

Frustrated that people's lives were at play then, not historically, Dominello said the way things were ran needed to be changed quickly, adding that real-time data needs to be at the core of what the government does.

"I am not a data scientist. I am just a humble former lawyer that puts his face up every four years and says vote for me," he said. "But I am interested in change, I am interested in making a positive difference for the people of our state and for the government, and as a lawyer I am interested in evidence."

With the abundance of data available, the minister said he no longer wants to see decisions made based on gut instinct, historical data, or a "feel good moment".

"I actually want to make decisions for the state based on data and the closer the data is to real-time, the better the decisions will be," he said. "How on earth are we going to make informed decisions about the future when we can't even accurately understand the present?"

Previously, Dominello said governments are starting to realise big data is an important asset, but that inaccessible data buried in bureaucracy is of little value as it cannot be fully utilised to inform government policy.

The state minister used his time at the CeBIT Australia 2016 Conference in May to paint a positive future for public data, saying that governments are now realising that its value should be considered in the same way as that of physical assets.

According to Dominello, open data is an index of democracy. He said the more willing the government is to open up data to its citizens, the stronger Australia's democracy will be.

"We're slowly moving away from the days where companies could get away with sending out telephone and electricity bills written in hieroglyphics, and you need a PhD to make any sense of them," Dominello said.

"People want access to data in its unadulterated form ... before it gets covered in political and PR spin."

Since taking up the role of innovation minister, Dominello has created a whole-of-government Data Analytics Centre (DAC); a bill [PDF] that requires each of the agencies and state-owned amenities to give his department their data within 14 days; and has appointed an advisory board charged with overseeing how the state government uses that data.

"Government is understandably a little bit slow right across -- and this is not a political comment -- governments are traditionally slow. They're slow to embrace new innovations and new technology," Dominello said on Wednesday. "We've been very fast to embrace the power of data and analytics and that's why we set up the DAC.

"We are leading the nation on this, make no doubt about that, and we are just starting."

Piggybacking off Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's AU$1.1 billion Innovation and Science Agenda, Dominello had previously pencilled in May for the unveiling of his own innovation initiative, however he did not provide an update on this.

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