New Spatial Information Act for Australia

By David Hocking

Geospatially speaking, we’ve created a bit of a mess in this country [Australia]. Over time, we’ve developed a mish-mash of conflicting policies and laws across all levels of government: we disagree about what kind of spatial information we need to do what tasks; we squabble over money (well, that’s probably nothing out of the ordinary); but arguably the worst sin of all, we don’t share our information.

Most of the time we muddle through the exasperating chaos but the process is, at best, inefficient and the results, unreliable. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could put aside our childish quarrels and petty differences of opinion and commit funds to creating and implementing a strong geospatial policy? In other words, stop bickering and get on with it?

The New South Wales (NSW), Australia government is now, in fact, attempting to do just that. Earlier this year, it decided to review the state’s Planning Act and it put out a White Paper, the first part of a long process to extract ideas and comments from those who have something to say about planning.

The Spatial Industries Business Association (SIBA) responded to this White Paper with a range of arguments around the need for a spatial data infrastructure (one of our pet issues) so that an appropriate platform can be established for transparent and factual planning.

We also showed how this would link to other policy challenges, suggesting that such an infrastructure would allow other diverse government service domains to be brought into the same spatial platform. It’s clear to us that interlinked spatial information would facilitate integrating and harmonizing data related to roads, bridges, utilities, rail, ports, airports, housing, industry, cities and the environment, among many other planning inputs.

In fact, I still have trouble understanding why all of these elements have not been linked together before now, for logical, cost effective and transparent planning. I can’t help but wonder why, as a country, we persist in making life difficult for ourselves.

But what really threw our shortcomings hard in our national face recently was our latest batch of natural disasters. Australia suffers its fair share of these – more in some years than in others – and they demonstrate all too vividly how poor our geospatial information is and how fractured our cross-jurisdictional policies are, as well. When these disasters happen we all lament our shortcomings, but it can be difficult to translate those lamentations into actions.

Politicians, of course, want quick wins. They latch on to the prevailing discontent in the face of these disasters and look for happy, fast answers. For example, the recent floods in Queensland prompted an agreement with the insurance sector on a common definition of flood. Not a bad thing in itself, especially for the families and businesses financially compromised by the floods – but it didn’t solve the real problem.  

The point is, insurance companies use existing data – assuming they can get access to them in the first place from the myriad government organizations that hold geospatial data in silos. They don’t necessarily understand the accuracy and fit-for-purpose issues, so they rely wholly on the data to which they can get access. If they have any doubts about accuracy, they cover their risk by lifting the price of insurance – a reasonable business response.

But what SIBA did during the flood crisis was to look at the problem through a spatial prism. We went to the core of the issue – planning. Flood damage isn’t caused by bad definitions of flood, nor is it caused by the cost of insurance. It’s caused by water, obviously, and by historical decisions that – perhaps sensibly at the time – put cities and towns on rivers. Over the years, more bad planning decisions have made the problem worse.  

SIBA responded to the various inquiries that followed the Queensland floods but we didn’t succeed in convincing government to invest in any measures to improve the spatial data.

But back to NSW and its breakthrough.

The responses to the White Paper generated a Green Paper (the next stage in the legislative process) and this Green Paper recommended that the government create a Spatial Information Act, in support of the Planning Act, that will “facilitate a whole-of-government approach to the application of information technology to spatial data (and not confined to planning information).”

This is a huge stride forward and the implications – for the rest of the country and for the spatial industry – are equally huge.

The Green Paper went on to say that there is no coherent legislative framework for sharing government-held spatial information between agencies, or from agencies to industry and the community. It also said: “reform of the planning system now provides a catalyst for enactment of legislation – the Spatial Information Act – to resolve these problems,” and “one of the most important features of access to spatial data dealt with by this legislation will be the creation of a geoportal where key government spatial data sets can be accessed by other government agencies and members of the public.”

Significantly, it also recognized how important it is that the minister with responsibility for land and property should also have charge of the Spatial Information Act.

Key geospatial recommendations:

  • Spatial Information Act
  • A single agency to coordinate spatial data
  • Comprehensive datasets to include land-use, cadastre, planning, features, social and government services, economic, valuation, building, licensing and registration data, infrastructure - water, gas, electricity, telecommunications and transport - among many others (in fact, it looks as though they have included all primary datasets across all levels of the economy)
  • Facilitate a whole-of-government approach as the foundational basis for all spatial information held across all government levels
  • Permit external private sector services to integrate data about telecommunications networks, gas pipelines and the like into a common database
  • Data custodian arrangements, including determining if there should be a central register of separate registers for each council (to be undertaken by the Coordinating Committee for spatial information)
  • Creating a geoportal where key government spatial datasets can be accessed by other government agencies and members of the public
  • A “duty to cooperate” to be included in the Spatial Information Act to ensure that data held or created by councils, state-owned corporations and agencies of the state are consistent, particularly with Strategic Plans
  • Basic access to the geoportal to be free (that said, there are some disturbing qualifications around a statement that says “information may be provided in a format that prevents re-use for commercial purposes,” which SIBA will address in the next phase)
  • Establishment of the appropriate custodian for each dataset
  • Ensuring government-held spatial datasets can be searched and combined with other datasets, so that the minister will have the capacity to establish metadata requirements for spatial datasets and spatial data services and to prescribe requirements for interoperability and harmonization
  • The Spatial Information Act will establish a coordinating committee to submit recommendations to the Minister for Finance and Services on initiatives to promote infrastructure for spatial information in New South Wales and to assist the minister with the implementation and use of these initiatives.

The Green Paper recommendations still need a bit of work but, by and large, SIBA believes that the Review Committee has taken a very big step in the right direction. Any amendments we propose will be minor.

In the decade since it was formed, SIBA has focused its attention on responding to more than 70 policy inquiries, ranging from water to planning and from transport to biosecurity. It’s gratifying and rewarding to see our labor bearing fruit.

We believe the way forward for the industry is to shift away from trying to define the industry with a simple word or two, toward ensuring that geospatial information and technologies underpin everything (well, almost everything).

Australian governments have gradually become more and more aware of how important spatial information and technologies are to policy as a whole. Sectors such as transport, defense and insurance are realizing it, too, and although there’s still a long way to go, the profile is finally rising and that’s encouraging.

The media’s growing attention and recognition helps, as well. Everyone is finally catching on. Details of all our recent submissions are on our website.

Published Wednesday, September 12th, 2012

Written by David Hocking

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