The Productivity Commission is not really known for engaging in hyperbole, so when it says that the refusal of successive governments to share information could be costing lives, it is worth listening.
In its latest annual report, the Commission has a chapter in which it argues persuasively of the need for governments, State and Federal, to make the information they collect on us, as a matter of routine, every day, publicly available.
This is not a call for some Edward Snowden-type data dump.
The Commission says any data released should be appropriately de-identified to protect privacy.
But what the Government can offer researchers are unique datasets covering large segments of the population over significant periods of time which can help provide a window into important (dare we say, lifesaving) questions about everything from what we take and when we die to how we work and play.
To take one example. The Commission cited researcher Professor Fiona Stanley, who said access to real-time prescription and birth data could have detected the connection between the morning sickness drug thalidomide and thousands of birth defects much earlier.
“Greater linking of health and non-health data sets could save lives and deliver more efficient and better targeted services,” the Commission says.
Another suggestion from the PC is to use linked data to analyse the interaction between welfare and work.
So, if there is so much useful information sitting on government hard drives, why isn’t it being shared already?
Privacy concerns and resource issues are regularly cited in objections to government data sharing but, as the PC points out, these are hardly insurmountable issues.
The real reason probably lies in the reluctance of governments to give the public the means to measure the effectiveness of their work.
As the PC says, “Administrative datasets could be instrumental in gaining insights into whether government programs meet their stated objectives, operate as intended, are delivered effectively, and deliver services in the right places”.
It notes that blockages to the release of data “occur within policy departments, reflecting sensitivities that providing data for independent research could yield unfavourable public findings about policy effectiveness”.
Maybe there’s a chance for a new approach to data sharing before the Abbott Ministry gets too much skin in the game – but I wouldn’t want to bet on it.