Christopher Niesche: Businesses told to share data

The Productivity Commission says Australian's data could be used to identify emerging health issues within communities. Photo / 123RF
The Productivity Commission says Australian's data could be used to identify emerging health issues within communities. Photo / 123RF

One of the most valuable assets a business has these days is data.

Many businesses know a huge amount about you - when you shop, what you buy, what your preferences are, where you go and so on.

They use this data to increase their sales to you, to target you with offers that you'll find attractive and at times you're most likely to buy.

That's great for the individual companies, but the data can also be used to benefit the economy as a whole, according to a landmark government report released last week.

The report, by the Productivity Commission, recommends data held by corporations and government on consumers become the property of those consumers.

Consumers would have the right to access their data, correct if it is wrong, share it with other companies and refuse to have further data collected.

"Better access to and use of data can also benefit business and government through improved operational processes and productivity. Examples abound of new found opportunities - in supply chain logistics, saving time and money; through more cost effective infrastructure and machinery maintenance and planning; improved safety and efficiency in aircraft engines; and in the capacity to better respond to and manage emergencies," the Productivity Commission writes.

"And data is critical to building the evidence base to underpin incremental improvements, allowing governments and businesses to offer products and services that are more customised, coordinated or timely. The potential value of data is tremendous, but so too is the scope for Australia to forgo much of this value under the misconception that denial of access would minimise risks."

We are in the midst of a data explosion, driven by falling costs of digital data storage and the spread of low-cost and powerful analytics tools.

The amount of digital data generated globally in 2002 (five terabytes) is now generated every two days, with 90 per cent of the world's information generated in just the past two years, said the Productivity Commission, or PC as it's known.

Much of this "information" is rubbish - pictures of dogs dressed as bees or selfies for uploading to Tinder - but some of it could be very useful.

In fact, PC head Peter Harris believes we are on the cusp of an economic transformation with the use of data and analytics.

The reports gives the example of how data could be used to improve the efficiency of the health system, with obvious economic benefits, and how far we are falling behind.

Data is critical to building the evidence base to underpin incremental improvements, allowing governments and businesses to offer products and services that are more customised, coordinated or timely.

Granular data about individual hospitals and procedures, patients' health records and data from smartphones and health monitors isn't currently available in Australia. The PC says this data could be used to identify emerging health issues within communities and factors that contribute to particular medical conditions; assess the safety of pharmaceuticals and other treatment options on an ongoing basis; and evaluate the effectiveness and efficiency of health policy.

Only the broad and aggregated data is available.

"Behind many of these thousands of aggregated data points are datasets, the equivalent of which capable, trusted researchers in nations - the United States, New Zealand and the United Kingdom - can and do actively analyse to enable discovery and solution to seemingly intractable problems. And in that context, we fall short," the PC says.

One of the key recommendations of the report is that consumers be able to access their data in a form where it can be read by computers. This is important because it means they'll be able to take data from one service provider and show it to another, to see if they might get a better deal.

Consumers would obviously benefit, but the increased efficiency would be of benefit to the economy as a whole.

For instance, someone could demand their call, text and broadband data from their mobile phone company and then send it to other mobile companies, who could use analyse their usage patterns and see if they could offer a cheaper service. It would be another way of keeping companies honest and of tailoring pricing to individuals.

This could happen across a whole suite of services - phone, power, insurance, home loans and credit cards to name a few.

Consumers would obviously benefit, but the increased efficiency would be of benefit to the economy as a whole.

Malcolm Turnbull's government - which commissioned the report - hasn't indicated whether it will take up its recommendations.

If they do, they're in for a fight with big business.

Companies won't give up the data lightly. At the moment, they own it and it gives them an advantage over their competitors. They will do everything they can to avoid having to share it with other companies and potentially lose a customer.

These corporations who for years have been collecting our private data will all of a sudden become champions of data privacy. And their IT departments will come up with a myriad of technical reasons as to why it can't be done, as IT people are wont to do.

The PC says neither of these issues are insurmountable.

- NZ Herald

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