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10.1 - There is no clear, authoritative source of environmental data and information

10.1.1 - Data and information are hard to find, access and share

There is no clear, authoritative source of data and information on Australia’s environment. There are many disparate sources of information but these are hard to navigate and not always reliable. This adds cost for business and governments, as they collect and re-collect the information they need. It also results in less community trust in the process, because the quality of information on which decisions are made is questioned, as are the outcomes that result from them (Chapter 4).

Existing information is produced by a wide range of organisations, including proponents, researchers, various Commonwealth agencies, State and Territory governments, local governments and regional natural resource management organisations. Each organisation collects and manages information to suit their own needs. For example, the distribution of the same species is mapped differently by different jurisdictions because they are intended to underpin different types of decisions. There are also key gaps in information due to a lack of data being collected, shared and made available in a timely way.

At the Commonwealth level, several different organisations play a role in coordinating and delivering environmental information. The 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement for the Environment discusses data collection and handling and refers directly to the Australian Land Information Council (now ANZLIC) and the Environmental Resources Information Network within the Department. The Australian Biological Resources Study, Bureau of Meteorology, Geoscience Australia, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and CSIRO also all have roles relating to environmental information. Each State and Territory also has agencies with expertise in environmental data and produces different information products aligned to their responsibilities and priorities.

All these agencies play a different role, but the distinction between the information products that they provide is not always clear. This can create the risk of inappropriate use of information to underpin a given decision because the user doesn’t fully understand the data – for example, using information collected on a broad scale for local, project-level decisions.

There is no clear, authoritative point of expertise to help users identify and access the range of information that is relevant and appropriate to inform the various decisions being made under the EPBC Act. This means those who interact with the Act are faced with a confusing range of portals, tools and datasets. Departmental datasets – including the Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) Database and the Protected Matters Search Tool – do not refine and present data in a way that is useful for proponents, assessment officers, decision-makers or the general public. The Atlas of Living Australia attempts to bring together disparate sources of data in one place, but even its custodian, CSIRO, acknowledges its shortcomings (Box 31).

Valuable data are often ‘locked’ in inaccessible formats, which makes it very difficult and time consuming to find, review and analyse. Historical data are stored in paper reports. Information on listed species and communities contained in conservation advices and recovery plans are usually in PDF form. To access this information, each document must be found, opened and read individually.

Box 31 - Atlas of Living Australia

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA) is a digital platform that pulls together Australian biodiversity data from multiple sources, making it accessible and reusable. It aims to support better decisions and on-ground actions and deliver efficiency gains for data management.

Launched in 2010, the ALA is hosted by CSIRO and funded under the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy. Further funding has been secured until 2023.

A wide range of organisations and individuals contribute data to the ALA, including universities, museums, governments, CSIRO, Indigenous ecological knowledge holders, and conservation and community groups. The ALA provides the technology, expertise and standards to aggregate the data and make it available in a range of ways. The platform now contains over 85 million biodiversity occurrence records, covering over 111,000 species, including birds, mammals, insects, fish and plants.

The ALA provides a user-friendly, online interface that supports species information, data visualisation and mapping tools, download of data and access to more sophisticated analysis tools. Organisations can also build on the ALA’s open IT infrastructure to enhance their own information services and products – for example, the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment did this for its Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement Tool (MERIT).

A recent review of the ALA found that the ALA has ‘pioneered a step-change’ in the use of Australia’s biodiversity data (Daly 2019). However, the review noted some stakeholder concerns about the lack of controls and metrics around data quality and reliability, and data coverage and diversity. The report found that minimal data are provided to the ALA by consultants and industry, which can represent a major source of biodiversity information. Industry is also not identified as a key user of the ALA, which is a missed opportunity. In discussions with the Review, CSIRO noted that significant effort would be required to get the ALA from a tool targeted at researchers to one appropriate to inform regulatory decisions, including filling data gaps and ensuring data currency.

The issues identified by stakeholders in the ALA review highlight the overall lack of both a strategic approach to delivering diverse, representative and comprehensive data to align with national needs, and consistent funding to support such an approach.

For more information, see the Environmental data initiatives further reading at the end of this report.

10.1.2 - There are cultural, legal and technical barriers to sharing information

Large amounts of valuable environmental data collected are not shared within government, between governments or made available for further use. Data collected by proponents to support environmental impact assessments or the acquisition and management of offsets is not provided in a way that is able to be shared or re-used by governments. As discussed in Box 35, collecting, collating and sharing the raw data that underpins these reports could have significant benefits for governments and industry.

The current barriers to data sharing between governments are largely cultural and legal, complicated by a lack of structured approaches and technical systems that ‘talk to each other’. The culture of open government, and the ‘public good’ nature of environmental data, has not filtered through to the operation of the EPBC Act. Proponents typically use a consultant to undertake environmental surveys. In most cases, the nature of the contract means that the consultant retains ownership of the raw data. This, along with a perceived lack of value in sharing the data with government, creates a significant barrier to sharing (Box et al. 2018). This jars because proponent information is being collected as evidence to justify impacts on MNES. The Review considers that claims that the data collected to inform environmental impact assessments is commercial-in-confidence and subject to copyright are unacceptable. Regulators should not be dictated to by the regulated community.

Trust and credibility is reduced when information is used for reasons beyond its original intended purpose, or without a good understanding of its limitations. The risk of inappropriate use of information can also be a barrier to sharing by agencies, particularly when they are not adequately resourced to maintain the data and undertake quality assurance for a wider range of potential uses.

The current settings of the EPBC Act and its regulations incorporate limited powers to compel proponents to provide datasets in a format that would support sharing and re-use. The EPBC Act regulations also provide some counter-productive options, such as allowing referrals to be provided in non-electronic form. In some States and Territories, another disincentive to sharing data is that some systems require people to pay for access to data lodged with governments (Box et al. 2018).

Data collected by the research community is often targeted for scientific publication and not always easily accessible for wider use. Regrettably, critical data and the opportunity to establish longitudinal datasets are lost over time as organisational priorities change and the resources to maintain datasets are withdrawn.

The costs and frustrations of unclear requirements, limited access to shared data, duplication and lack of transparency in the environmental assessment process have been widely acknowledged. In November 2019, environment ministers from across Australia agreed to work together to digitally transform environmental assessment systems. In 2019 the Australian and Western Australian Governments made financial commitments to the collaborative Digital Environmental Assessment Program. This will deliver a single online portal to submit an application across both tiers of government and a biodiversity database that is intended to be rolled out nationally (Box 37). This is a good first step to improve the interface between proponents and regulators and access to and ease of use of information for environmental impact assessments. However, given this only applies to one State, it is only a pilot for a potential national system.

10.1.3 - There is no enduring national strategy to manage environmental information

There is no clear national strategy for environmental information. Unlike other areas of national policy (such as the economy, the labour market and health), environment and heritage policy does not have a comprehensive, well-governed and funded national information base. Efforts are duplicated and Australia does not make the most of public investment in information and data. Multiple parties collect or purchase the same or similar information, often because they aren’t aware of other efforts. Similar systems and databases are built by multiple jurisdictions. Shared or collective development would be more efficient.

The Commonwealth, States and Territories have put considerable resources into research, data collation and integration, and analysis to help make better decisions about the environment. Several government-funded initiatives have sought to deliver a level of prioritisation, greater coordination and standardisation of environmental data. Insights from the implementation of these initiatives are discussed in Box 32. Funding though is often uncertain because it consists of ad-hoc program-based investments.

These programs have also suffered from a lack of accountability. There is minimal meaningful reporting on outcomes and no expectation for decision-makers to demonstrate they are using best available evidence. Despite considerable effort, governments often must resort to negotiating case-by-case data licensing and sharing, rather than having data-sharing agreements and systems that can talk with each other. The collation of information on the impacts of the 2019–20 bushfires on the environment is an example of this (Box 35).

Box 32 - Learning from past and current environmental information initiatives

Evaluations of past and current environmental information initiatives and contributions to the Review provide insights on the drivers behind these programs, key lessons from their implementation, and reasons why programs may have failed to achieve their objectives.

A key shortcoming in many cases is that these approaches have not been embedded in legislation or supported by long-term funding. As government priorities change, programs that lack a legislative basis, or a champion within an agency, have been discontinued.

The diverse funding sources of the current system are spread across multiple agencies, without central direction and coordination. This has resulted in misaligned goals and activities, and a current system that often does not support the EPBC Act and its application.

The Atlas of Living Australia (ALA, Box 31) and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network (TERN) are funded through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) managed by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment. These institutions have a different mission, which is primarily aimed at the research community but can have a beneficial overlap with the needs of policy and regulatory end users. Despite being critical components of the current information system, the heavy reliance on research infrastructure for our national view of environmental data is risky, because current funding arrangements do not guarantee that these systems will be sustained (Box et al. 2018, Daly 2019).

The complexity of sharing data between the Commonwealth and States and Territories is also a significant challenge. Different jurisdictions have different cultures, legislation and policy regimes around the collection and storage of information, which can make meaningful sharing and consolidation challenging. The incentives for States and Territories to invest in system improvements that deliver benefits at a national level rather than jurisdictional, regional or local level are limited. Collaborative approaches between governments to build consistent approaches can deliver good outcomes, but without adequate resourcing and incentives this can take a long time, leading to a loss of support. This was a contributing factor in the discontinuation of the pilot Essential Environmental Measures for Australia program, which ran from 2015 to 2017.

Another consistent theme across programs is that end users are often not consulted, or struggle to identify their needs and priorities. This may be due to a lack of clear overarching outcomes and oversight to guide these decisions.

There is no comprehensive long-term national strategy or coordination. There are custodians for some national-level data and information (for example, Geoscience Australia coordinates satellite data and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority coordinates information about the Great Barrier Reef) but there are major gaps in coordination and oversight, particularly for terrestrial environments. The information and resourcing to support understanding of the state, condition and effectiveness of management of Australia’s natural and cultural heritage has also declined in recent years (Mackay 2016).

No single organisation has clear responsibility or adequate and ongoing funding for stewardship and coordination across the breadth of national environmental information required to support decisions under the EPBC Act. The lack of coordination drives higher costs for government and industry, and derives fewer benefits from the investments that are made in information collection and curation.