​NSW government playing Big Brother with citizens' data

The New South Wales government has undertaken a project in Sydney's south to determine who lives where and with whom, with the intention of reducing monitoring residents' movements to 30-minute intervals.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The New South Wales government is currently undertaking a data analytics project in South Sydney to determine who lives where and with whom.

The project falls under the scope of the newly created NSW Data Analytics Centre (DAC), with Dr Ian Oppermann assuming the role of DAC CEO in late 2015.

Speaking in Sydney on Wednesday, Oppermann said the urban renewal project is the only one that genuinely frightens him from a technology perspective.

"Here we're just trying to answer the question of who lives where with whom, and believe it or not, that's a very difficult question to answer and it's difficult because we rely on census data as the baseline for understanding," he said.

With urban planning the tagline for the project, Oppermann said those that are charged with planning transport, schools, water, and electricity need to know accurate residency information in order to make their plans.

"When you project out 10 or 20 years, it actually makes it a very substantial difference if you know household composition," he said. "Taking a census every five years is actually a pretty slow sampling rate, particularly when everything is changing [quickly]."

Oppermann said the area near Randwick, south of Sydney, is expected to be the most densely populated area of Australia very soon -- if it is not already.

He said data on both inward and outward migration, as well as home-type and school-type actually have a very substantial bearing on whether or not the state has the right number of schools or the right number of hospitals in the area.

"So what we're trying to do here, given that we're as far away from the next census in terms of the quality of data that we've got access to, is try to understand on a rolling basis, who lives there," he said.

Working with Data61, the DAC is being fed the data around activity: Connections, disconnections, water, electricity, rental bonds, and a variety of different datasets to cast an extreme wide net over the area.

Currently, the DAC is working to create a month-on-month understanding of who lives where with whom; Oppermann hopes the centre can extend this to gain a week-by-week view.

"We don't need to know it on a household level, we just need to know on a level that is useful to planners," he said. "Here we're working with telcos, with banks, with car-share companies and with anyone that's got dynamic data, and we think we can get it down to 30-minute intervals of not only who lives where with whom, but who travels in, who travels out, who travels around, or who stays put."

The NSW Minister for Innovation and Better Regulation Victor Dominello first announced the state's plans to create the Data Analytics Centre in August last year, saying at the time that data is one of the greatest assets held by government, but when it is buried away in bureaucracy, it is of little value.

Previously, Dominello said in order to make the DAC work, he had to introduce a Bill to Parliament that required each of the agencies and state-owned amenities to give his department their data.

The Data Sharing Government Sector Bill [PDF] outlines to state government agencies what and how they must share their data with the DAC and gives the centre authority to collect data within 14 days.

"If I did not push this Bill through Parliament, I can guarantee you I'd be getting the data in dribs and drabs in passages over months, if not years," Dominello said. "I don't have a year or two years to muck around."

Eventually, the minister said he wants to see the centre receive live-streaming data.

"The key word to get this across the line in terms of inside the government is collaboration," he said.

Speaking of daily life at the DAC, Oppermann said data is actually the least interesting part of what his team does.

"Most of the hard work goes into actually helping people share data. And the main reasons people don't share data are: Unwilling, unable, not allowed," he said.

"The legislation really speaks to the not allowed ... but it also starts to dissolve the unwilling because a lot of the unwilling comes from, 'Well what does it say about me?', or 'What are the unexpected consequences of sharing?' It's not universally true, but it there is a lot of cultural resistance in sharing data."

In April, the state government established an advisory board that will provide strategic advice and support to the DAC. Chaired by Tim Thurman, who is currently the CIO of the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX), the advisory board will work closely with Oppermann and advise government on priorities and the key partnerships across industry, government, and research sectors.

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