6.1 - There is no single source of truth for data and information
6.1.1 - Data and information are hard to find, access and share
There is no single national source of truth that people can rely on. This adds cost for businesses and governments, as they collect and re-collect the information they need. It also results in less community trust in the process, as they question the quality of information on which decisions are made, and the outcomes that result from them.
There are many sources of information on the environment. These are 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.
There are many different portals, tools and datasets available, but there is no clear, authoritative source of environmental information to help users identify and access information that is relevant. Department datasets, including the Species Profile and Threats (SPRAT) Database and the Protected Matters Search Tool (PMST), 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 (see Box 17).
Box 17 - The 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 is secured out to 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's Monitoring, Evaluation, Reporting and Improvement Tool (MERIT) platform.
A recent review of the ALA111 found that the ALA has 'pioneered a step-change' in the use of Australia’s biodiversity data. However, the review noted some stakeholder concerns regarding the lack of controls and metrics around data quality and reliability, and data coverage and diversity. The report noted that minimal data is 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 appears to be a missed opportunity.
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.
Valuable data is often ‘locked’ in inaccessible formats. Valuable historical data is stored in paper reports. Information on listed species and communities, and assessment documents provided by proponents, are usually in PDF form. To access this information, each document must be found, opened and read individually.
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 reused. It is often considered proprietary by proponents. 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 is 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 West 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 will eventually be rolled out nationally112. This is a good first step to improve the interface between proponents and regulators and the access and ease of use of information for environmental impact assessments.
There is no clear 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.
A number of government-funded initiatives have sought to deliver greater coordination and standardisation of environmental data. These include the National Environmental Information Infrastructure, the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network, the Atlas of Living Australia (see Box 17), Digital Earth Australia (the monitoring framework that underpins the Regional Land Partnerships program), and the work of the Western Australia Biodiversity Science Institute.
Despite these efforts, 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.
There is no comprehensive long-term national strategy or coordination. Funding is often uncertain because it consists of ad-hoc program-based investments. 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 related to the Great Barrier Reef) but there are major gaps, particularly for terrestrial environments.
No single organisation has clear responsibility or adequate and ongoing funding for stewardship and coordination across the breadth of national environmental information. The lack of coordination drives higher costs and derives fewer benefits from the investments that are made in information collection and curation.
 More information about the Digital Transformation of Environmental Assessment Program is available from The Hon Sussan Ley MP Minister for the Environment media release from 21 November 2019, Congestion busting for environmental assessments, and the media release from the West Australian Government on 13 May 2020, McGowan Government announces streamlined environmental assessment processes during COVID-19 recovery.