In the wake of My Health Record, Canberra wants to get national data scheme right

The Australian government has appointed a National Data Advisory Council to help shape data-sharing guidelines within government and draw support from the public on the Coalition's cause.

Minister for Human Services and Digital Transformation Michael Keenan has summoned a group of data-focused individuals to help the government shape the rules for how data is to be used and shared within Australia.

Opening the inaugural meeting of the National Data Advisory Council on Wednesday morning in Sydney, Keenan said he hopes the council can help government convince the public that what it is planning on doing around data is the right thing, and to avoid scepticism that any resulting regime will suffer the same fate as its bungled My Health Record.

See also: Almost 300,000 Australians cancelled their My Health Record by mid-November

"I'm really hoping that this council will ... help us make the argument as to why what we're doing with data is actually important and why we want to be able to use this resource to provide better services to people. And to get over some of the scepticism we've seen for example with the rollout of My Health Record," he said, addressing the board.

"I thought, well everyone will understand why we need to do this and why it's so evident that it would be great to be able to share peoples medical history but of course -- and the resistance came from people that really surprised me and I really had to take a step back ... people I was talking to were very sceptical about it, very concerned about it, and I was very surprised."

As the minister responsible for the department that oversaw the Centrelink "robo-debt" debacle, Keenan said one thing that surprised him with taking on the Human Services and digital transformation portfolio was the lack of public support.

"I initially thought that everything we are doing here is obviously so self-evident to people, that we can just barrel forward and say, 'look we're going to utilise this data, it's a great resource for us, we're going to make government better, it's going to help us personalise services' and the people would just be on board with that," he explained.

"But what has become incredibly evident to me is that we have a lot of work to do making arguments with people on why this is important and what we can actually do if we can liberalise the regime around data-sharing at a Commonwealth level, and hopefully across other jurisdictions as well."

Keenan said the public sector is sitting on an enormous amount of data that is not being used to capacity.

"At the moment we have about 500 different regimes governing data with a tendency, I think, among the [Australian Public Service] -- I think it's easier to say no when you're dealing with data, it's more difficult to say yes, and you need to work out your obligations, legally," he said.

"It's very complicated I think for the APS to work its way around that, even though I'm sure people are starting to understand the importance of getting access to our data and actually use it to make government better."

It is expected the council will help guide National Data Commissioner Deborah Anton on issues such as ethical data usage, social licence building, and technical best practice as Australia's data sharing and release arrangements undergo a refresh.

Joining Anton on the board is Australian Privacy Commissioner Angelene Falk; Australia's Chief Scientist Alan Finkel; Australian Statistician David Kalisch; economist and ANU Associate Professor Nicholas Biddle; artificial intelligence and open data consultant Ellen Broad; Data Governance Australia co-founder Paul McCarney; Dr Joshua Meltzer, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC; Consumer Policy Research Centre CEO Lauren Solomon; and research Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health at the University of Western Australia, Professor Fiona Stanley.

In a bid to simplify how data is shared and used within public services, the federal government has been developing new legislation to "realise the value of public sector data and modernise the Australian government data system".

The overall aim of the Bill, the government explained previously, is to safeguard data releases and data sharing in a consistent and appropriate way; enhance the integrity of the data system; build trust in use of public data; establish institutional arrangements; and promote better sharing of public sector data.

After releasing draft legislation in July, the final details of the Data Sharing and Release Act are still not ready. As such, Keenan last week released guidelines for Commonwealth entities to follow in situations when the personal data of citizens is shared or used while the specifics of the draft legislation are still being nutted out.

"The [government] is making sure that privacy, safety, and security are built into the core of everything we do, but that does not mean we have to lock up public data and throw away the key," Keenan said at the time. "That is why we are taking this robust approach to ensure stringent privacy provisions are maintained as we seek to tap into the social and economic benefits that data can deliver."

The guidelines are coupled with five data sharing principles that will be used to educate agencies on how best to share and release government data in an appropriate manner. They are based on the United Kingdom's Five Safes Framework.

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