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

Opportunities for the future

The ‘Future directions’ section of SoE2001 (ASEC 2001) observed that the unique nature of the Australian environment presented managers and decision makers with particular challenges. The Australian continent is large, its environments are diverse and the biota are highly endemic, yet the Australian human population is small.

A key challenge that environmental managers will continue to face in Australia is in targeting investment of limited resources to maximise benefits to the environment. The path to achieving a targeted approach is not simple in a country where three levels of government (national, state and territory, and local), industry and non-government organisations each have commitments to environmental monitoring and reporting, and thus need to obtain relevant and up-to-date environmental data and information on a regular basis.

Australian government initiatives have encouraged progress in the development of cooperative frameworks for information collation and use, and have therefore promoted the development and implementation of nationally consistent standards and protocols. There has been progress in environmental data collection, and there are notable examples where synergies have been obtained through collaboration between agencies, but there are still substantial gaps in knowledge of Australia’s environment and current monitoring programmes are often inadequate for supplying the data essential to understanding the interaction between humans and the natural environment.

Much progress in accessing environmental data and information has already been made since SoE2001 through technological advances in information delivery, including tools and systems for the discovery and sharing of data, and associated improvements in interoperability.

Environmental data and information have been made increasingly accessible by electronic means in the past five years, and this trend is likely to continue. However, while the energy being devoted to initiatives aimed at improving the availability and accessibility of environmental data is heartening, the ad hoc development of often very similar databases, datasets or online reporting systems shows a lack of coordination between agencies. In addition, efforts directed towards improving data and information availability are often limited in their purpose and scope (to the needs of the organisation funding the initiative), and are frequently duplicated.

If the limited resources available for environmental data collection, monitoring and reporting are to be used more effectively, then the agencies responsible for these functions will need to communicate with each other and work together. The difficult questions that arise, however, are how to coordinate agencies and jurisdictions and who will lead the process.

The National Land and Water Resources Audit is facilitating the process for those data and information sets that are relevant to the National Monitoring and Evaluation Framework for natural resource management. The Audit has continued the development of an agreed framework of indicators, standards and protocols across all jurisdictions that can enable consistent and authoritative monitoring and reporting for natural resource management, as long as quality data are gathered consistently in the future to populate the framework (Campbell 2006).

A more systematic approach to environmental data collection

  • Step 1: Formal discussion on a better designed environmental reporting system
  • Step 2: Establish the data collection priorities
  • Step 3: Ensure the technology and protocols are in place to make it happen
  • Step 4: Institutional arrangements
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    Australia needs to apply a more systematic approach to environmental data collection and monitoring (NLWRA 2001; Beeton et al. 2006; Campbell 2006). This would involve communication and collaboration between all jurisdictions to develop cooperative frameworks for information collection, access and use, supported by investment in a national data and information infrastructure.
    Certain first steps will need to be taken to initiate a cooperative, coordinated approach to environmental data collection, management and use in Australia. These are listed below.

    Step 1: Formal discussion on a better designed environmental reporting system

    The current environmental data reporting system has a plethora of players with little or no incentives for agencies and organisations to collaborate in the collection, management and sharing of specific data. The 2006 Australian State of the Environment Committee advised two Ministerial Council Standing Committees in September 2005 of the lack of access to environmental data that was hindering their attempts to report on the state of Australia’s environment. The committees found that for many environmental domains, data are still patchy or only available at either local or regional scales. The standing committees, comprising the chief executives of environment and heritage agencies, agreed that the system for environmental reporting did need to be improved.

    A better designed system would establish a common set of questions and indicators that could satisfy the most important environmental reporting needs of all levels of government and would have the characteristics of synchronicity, with mechanisms and protocols in place to facilitate data and information collection, aggregation, management and sharing by all users. It should be possible for any participating jurisdiction to collect data at any scale, which can subsequently be aggregated or disaggregated for reporting purposes at a different scale (Beeton et al. 2006). The data and information would be accessible to decision makers and environmental reporters at all levels, and preferably made available online.

    Step 2: Establish the data collection priorities

    Once the mechanisms are in place to ensure that data collection occurs, and occurs in a way that provides scalable information that can be used by all jurisdictions, it will be necessary for agencies and organisations to reach agreement on Australia’s priorities for environmental data and information collection, based on the agreed questions. Prioritisation should address the establishment of long-term trend monitoring programmes (applying remote sensing or ground-based data collection as appropriate) and the filling of gaps in primary data wherever this is considered necessary to meet the most pressing needs of the majority of data users.

    Step 3: Ensure the technology and protocols are in place to make it happen

    Despite the significant advances that have been made in the past five years, there is still work to be done to ensure that the technology, mechanisms and protocols are in place to allow for the collection and sharing of environmental data. The technological environment in which data providers are working is constantly changing, and with it the expectations of information users. Users are becoming more sophisticated, technologies are rapidly advancing (especially on the spatial side) and demands are higher. Technology continues to develop at an increasing rate, with the result that vast improvements in the collection, storage, analysis and delivery of environmental information are likely to be observed every five years. Since technological advances will occur regardless, effort should be aimed towards coordinating the work being put into online reporting and database development to reduce duplication, improve efficiency and avoid the incidence of systems becoming rapidly superseded.

    It is important that activities that raise awareness of custodianship rights and responsibilities and implementation of the ISO metadata profile are continued, as are activities that lead to the development of policy, standards and procedures for data interoperability, integratability and licensing.

    Step 4: Institutional arrangements

    The problems of intellectual property, copyright, licensing and access outlined in this report would need to be addressed to break down current interagency barriers to data sharing and information use. It is likely that the collaborative effort put into the development of a cross-jurisdictional environmental reporting system would, as a matter of course, encourage a sense of common purpose and the dissolution of many institutional barriers.

    Advances in institutional cooperation have already been achieved for environmental and natural resource management through the considerable leadership efforts of bodies such as ESCAVI and the Audit. The Spatial Data Management Group and working groups managed by the OSDM continue to encourage interagency cooperation by facilitating the sharing of experience and expertise amongst Australian Government agencies.

    In addition, many of the challenges facing Australia today call for a national approach. Examples include the Australian Government Spatial Information for National Security (AGSINS) all hazards approach to emergency management and national security and the National Water Commission’s efforts to drive the national water reform agenda. These drivers help to minimise interagency and intergovernmental barriers because they force disparate agencies to collaborate on data and information collection and use. While environmental issues are rarely considered as immediate or pressing, longer-term benefits will flow into this area from the institutional arrangements created to meet the needs of the ‘higher’ priority information needs.

    Diverse sets of managers from varied jurisdictions are involved in environmental management and reporting in Australia. Most have come to recognise that the best way forward is to combine the knowledge, plan together for outcomes that benefit all, pool resources, invest wisely and cooperate to ensure a continued supply of integratable environmental information and monitoring data.

    Groundwork towards this (albeit complex) aspiration will be laid through new cooperative initiatives, for example, a working group is currently being established to improve Australia’s environmental reporting system. The Audit has already put effort into the framework and institutional arrangements that would allow for a better designed and integrated reporting system for regional natural resource management.

    Conclusion

    There are many questions that must still be answered with regards to the appropriate leadership, the correct forum and the best model for renovating the environmental reporting system in Australia, and for ensuring better access to environmental data and information. Future progress will depend on sustained effort and strong leadership.