Progress in accessing environmental data and information

Integrative commentary
Department of the Environment and Heritage
prepared for the 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee, 2006

Continuing challenges

SoE2001 recognised a pressing need for research and monitoring of the state of the environment. In discussing data and information management, the report identified the following as common problems across all state of the environment reporting themes:

  • important gaps in primary data
  • lack of access to some data because of institutional barriers
  • confusion about intellectual property and copyright
  • lack of trend data for many variables
  • some data cannot be aggregated and compared on a continental scale because of differences in scales, map projections, boundaries and geographical divisions, and inconsistencies in the way attributes are described and recorded.

While some progress has been made on these issues, these same problems still restrict the quality and completeness of state of the environment reporting in 2006. From 2006 onwards, Australia faces new challenges in ensuring the consistent supply of source data for environmental reporting, in particular, continued satellite remote sensing monitoring data and ground-based primary data collection. Furthermore, there are ongoing challenges for state of the environment reporting that are associated with the complexity of environmental data and with the values-based nature of heritage appraisal.

Gaps in primary data

The National Land and Water Resources Audit (the Audit) in its first phase (1997–2002) delivered a comprehensive national appraisal of Australia’s natural resource base and addressed several of the gaps in land, water and vegetation data required for SoE2001. At that time, the Audit recognised the need for more strategic data collection to maximise future return on investments in natural resource management. Since then, while vast improvements have been made in the accessibility and online delivery of environmental information, this appears to have been at least partly at the expense of Australian, state and territory government investment in the collection and compilation of primary data (Campbell 2006). Furthermore, lower investment has apparently favoured methods of remotely gathering data over ground-truthed data collection, which has benefited some state of the environment reporting themes but reduced the availability of information suitable for others. Hence, in 2006 there are still gaps in primary environmental data (see Table 2 for examples) and fundamental spatial data (Table 3) for aspects of Australia’s land and marine resources, most particularly in the availability of nationally consistent environmental datasets.

Table 2: Some of the gaps in primary Australian environmental data observed when preparing SoE2006
Up-to-date land use change data
Water resources data at a national scale
Information about weeds, pest and feral animals at a national scale
The fate of pollutants such as fertilisers and herbicides in the environment
Rural and regional air pollution monitoring
The actual distributions of threatened species
Vegetation and habitat mapping data
Information describing the condition of the environment, such as habitat condition, soil condition
Condition of natural heritage places
Freshwater species and habitats
Marine species and habitats, condition and extent
Coastal ecosystems, such as seagrasses, coral reefs
Estuarine and coastal water quality
Environmental impacts of uses of the marine environment
Natural resource management trend information, in particular, the effectiveness of management and recovery actions
Information on potentially useful biological compounds
National mapping of fire and fire regimes
Measures for monitoring sustainability in human settlements
Table 3: High priority gaps in fundamental datasets for environmental monitoring identified by an OSDM survey of Australian agencies (December 2004, 2005)
Marine park boundaries
Seafloor topography and bathymetry
Ocean parameters, such as temperature, salinity, currents
Land tenure and land use
Commonwealth interests in land
Natural resource management: soil condition and socio-economic census
River catchments
Cropping and irrigation areas
Antarctic remote sensing products
Datasets that deliver on monitoring and evaluation framework indicators at a national, state and territory, and regional level

There is considerable scope for agencies to pool resources and collaborate on the collection or procurement of primary data. A number of agencies are already working together on projects to develop and deliver fundamental and nationally consistent environmental data. Examples include the Australian Collaborative Land Use Mapping Program  (ACLUMP) and the Australian Collaborative Land Evaluation Program  (ACLEP). An important first step will be for government and science agencies, industry and non-government organisations to discuss, and agree on, data collection priorities that will fill the gaps in key national environmental datasets.

Access to environmental data

National initiatives promoting interoperability have meant that the issues regarding technological barriers are rapidly being addressed. In contrast, institutional barriers continue to prevent efficient use of the data that are available within Australian agencies and jurisdictions. These barriers include:

  • the lack of trust or agreement between agencies and jurisdictions about who has responsibility for the collection, management, reporting and analysis of data
  • a lack of coordination within jurisdictions and agencies, leading to fragmentation of monitoring efforts within and between agencies in all jurisdictions
  • the failure to systematically standardise and collate local data to obtain the ‘big picture’ within and between jurisdictions
  • a misalignment between the needs of the information users and the objectives of the information providers
  • confidentiality, privacy and commercial concerns that increasingly impede access to the data available within agencies.

Cooperation appears to have improved across Australian Government agencies, but this is not necessarily filtering down to lower levels where, for example, copyright and licensing issues have impeded the collegial sharing of data between agency staff.

Intellectual property, copyright and licensing issues

Data accessibility is reduced by intellectual property issues, such as restrictions on the use of commercially confidential data and data that were previously publicly available but are currently not available due to the corporatisation of organisations. This barrier has particularly affected access to waste generation data and, to some extent, waste recycling data.

While NVIS provides a good example of the collaboration between state, territory and Government agencies to produce a standardised, nationally consistent dataset, the process of formalising the necessary license agreements for data sharing was considerably simpler in 2001 than during the recent update of the dataset in 2005. Agencies have shown increased concern over the risk of litigation arising from the supply and use of their data. This has resulted in source agencies being more constrained in their capacity to share data and the agencies responsible for compiling the data instigating overly cautious procedures for approving the acceptance of liabilities associated with incoming license agreements. Hence, licensing issues have considerably slowed and in some cases have prevented the collaborative sharing of data between agencies and jurisdictions. There is still an issue of how to gain in-principle agreement on data sharing between jurisdictions for all government activity.

Availability of trend data

The picture is variable, but it reflects the reluctance or capacity of government at all levels to commit ongoing funding for long-term environmental monitoring. Consistent, ongoing trend data can be relied on for reporting of the atmosphere theme, the human settlements theme (especially population data from ABS), and some indicators for the Antarctic theme. Trend data are available for some rangelands features (Watson 2006) and certain individual monitoring datasets; examples include a 30-year record of whale sightings at Southern Cross University, Birds Australia data, and particular attributes of the Great Barrier Reef. Studies of particular species or ecosystems have been carried out over long time periods but, by their nature, these records are spatially constrained by the character and extent of the ecosystem or species being studied. For other themes and issues, such as biodiversity, land condition, and the state of marine and freshwater biota, there are no nationally available trend data. There are little available trend data for any attribute of ‘condition’, largely because the term is value laden: values change constantly and it is difficult to obtain institutionalised agreement on what the term constitutes. While SoE2001 recommended that it was essential to instigate an ecological monitoring programme to track changes in biodiversity (ASEC 2001), such a programme still does not exist. Similarly, there are no systematic long-term national programmes in place to monitor key features of Australia’s oceans and coasts.

A typical example of attempts at regional monitoring that have been hampered by limited trend data is the Australian Collaborative Rangelands Information System (ACRIS), which tested the reporting of change in the rangelands from 1992 to 2002 across a number of pilot regions. ACRIS reported not only a lack of suitable monitoring data to adequately report change in biodiversity but a decreasing information base for monitoring change during the period of their study. ACRIS observed that most jurisdictions had shown a decreasing capacity to sustain future monitoring activity.

The lack of natural resource management trend data was noted in early Audit reports (for example, NLWRA 2000) and the situation has not improved. More recent works undertaken by the Audit suggest a continuing reduction in the basic mapping and monitoring of the environment (Campbell 2006). Audit publications prepared between 1997 and 2002 reported on the condition of Australia’s natural resources and were intended to provide a baseline for monitoring the effectiveness of national land and water policies and programmes. In most cases, the data have not been updated since 2001. Whether or not monitoring to support the Monitoring and Evaluation Framework takes place will depend on the future commitment from relevant jurisdictions and regional organisations.

Diversity of data scales and geographies

The obstacles to building nationally consistent environmental datasets include incompatible formats, different map projections and scales, and inconsistent categorisation and recording of data attributes by the data providers. A typical example of such problems can be observed in the compilation of the NVIS; state and territory agencies independently collect vegetation data for their own purposes, which vary considerably from agency to agency. When these data are incorporated into NVIS, problems with data integration occur, particularly at the state or territory borders. The most common inconsistencies are due to definitional issues (the allocation of the same vegetation type to a different community class), the lack of consistent schemas for vegetation mapping, and the use of different boundaries to delimit the state or territory extent of mapping (for example, cadastral boundaries versus state and territory borders). Nonetheless, the states and territories have cooperated with the Australian Government to iron out these problems and an updated version of the NVIS national map of native vegetation types was completed in 2006.

ABS data are generally supplied in spatial units defined by a minimum population size for the purpose of census data collection and privacy considerations (the smallest unit currently used is the Census Collection District). The land area covered by these units varies enormously from urban to rural regions and bears no relationship to cadastral or land management boundaries. In many cases, this restricts the use of the data for effective mapping and geographic comparisons or analysis with natural resource information. The ABS is aware of these limitations and is making concerted efforts towards improving the spatial usability of their data sets (for example, the development of ‘Mesh Blocks’).

Technological advances that promote interoperability between applications are beginning to overcome some of the processing issues related to data integration. The more difficult problems to overcome will be those that stem from the different needs and objectives of the agencies collecting the data.

Ensuring a continuing supply of remote sensing data

Remote sensing imagery underpins a large and growing number of map products and analyses used for state of the environment reporting and, more importantly, many of the products that monitor long-term environmental trends. It is very easy to overlook the importance of satellite and airborne image data since many products are sourced as finished maps without acknowledgement of the remote sensing data and processing works used in their development. The Bureau of Meteorology, the Bureau of Rural Sciences (BRS) and the Australian Greenhouse Office (AGO) depend heavily on satellite data for many of their applications. Remote sensing is being increasingly applied to produce nationally relevant datasets as a complement to the integration of data collected at the state and territory level and there is considerable potential for further use of this efficient and cost-effective approach to national data collection.

The Landsat series of satellites have provided the foundation for much of Australia’s long-term environmental monitoring since the 1970s. With the impending demise of the current Landsat 5 and 7 satellites, and doubts over NASA’s commitment to continuation of the program, there is concern in the Australian spatial science community about continued access to cost-effective, stable, well-calibrated imagery that has the spatial and spectral characteristics suited to such a wide range of environmental applications. Australian Government agencies are currently investigating replacement options to ensure the continued supply of these fundamental monitoring data.

Complexity of environmental data

Some environmental data are intrinsically challenging to collect and thus slow progress has been achieved in establishing integrated datasets.

The condition of biodiversity is inherently difficult to measure because it refers to the condition of all species that make up an ecosystem, how they contribute to each other, and the resulting stability and resilience of the ecosystem as a whole. There is very little understanding of how the population of any one species may vary depending on physico-chemical factors or the presence, population and distribution of each other species comprising the ecosystem. The responses of an ecosystem to perturbation or disturbances are complex, often unexpected and inherently difficult to describe or measure. Hence, the focus of data gathering has been at the level of population and distribution of individual species and, to a lesser extent, the distribution and character of ecological communities and landscapes. The monitoring of ecologically significant species (such as ‘keystone’ or ‘indicator’ species) has proven to be a useful management tool (see Soulé and Kohm 1989), but in reality Australia does not have a comprehensive understanding of whether changes in the distribution and abundance of any particular species reflect positively or negatively on biodiversity as a whole.

Even in the absence of a direct measure of the ‘condition’ of Australia’s biodiversity, valuable information for conservation planning and management can be provided through the assessment and monitoring of individual species and communities, habitat quality, and the extent and distribution of key threatening processes. Some significant progress has been made. For example, the Audit’s landscape health and biodiversity assessment reports (NLWRA 2000, 2002b) provided a national overview of key environmental threats and the health of landscapes.

A number of government agencies are progressing ‘benchmark-based’ approaches to habitat quality assessment for aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. For example, the National Natural Resource Management Monitoring and Evaluation Framework (NRMMC 2002) established nationally agreed indicators, including one on native vegetation condition, which provide the basis for ongoing reporting of progress in regional planning against reference points or benchmarks. Other reporting systems using this approach include the Australian Collaborative Rangelands Information System , the Victorian Government’s methods for Vegetation Quality Assessment  and the (former) New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service’s BioMetric Tool  that facilitates the preparation of property vegetation plans.

In some cases, because of the multifaceted and dynamic nature of the natural environment, it could simply be impossible or impractical to collect sufficient, appropriate field data at suitably regular intervals to satisfy reporting and management needs. Modelling can provide the next best solution for monitoring landscape condition or predicting environmental change in certain situations where the suitable data cannot be obtained.

Due to the inherently values-based nature of heritage and the tendency for values (and therefore what is being measured) to change over time, attempts to describe, maintain and report on heritage data have continued to be challenging (Johnston 2006).