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

Progress since 2001 in accessing data and information for environmental reporting

Since the 2001 state of the environment report (SoE2001), major advances have been made in the availability of environmental data, primarily reflecting technological improvements and institutional changes that have made information more accessible and searchable. Progress has been driven by government policy and the development of national frameworks, guidelines and infrastructure for the ‘public good’ sharing of information and data.

Australian Government data sharing initiatives

The Australian Government Policy on Spatial Data Access and Pricing , administered by the Office of Spatial Data Management (OSDM), provides a whole-of-government approach to ensure that fundamental spatial data collected by agencies in the public interest are used efficiently and effectively to maximise the economic and social benefits to the nation.

The Spatial Data Schedule  lists almost 300 datasets that have been made available online for free or for marginal costs by their host agencies. These digital maps and databases include information on climate, biological and physical parameters of the land and ocean, management boundaries and tenure, biodiversity, natural resources, agriculture, fisheries and a range of other information considered necessary for the ‘public good’. This represents a major effort by the Australian Government to reverse the trend towards privatisation and commercialisation of public data holdings that was identified in SoE2001 as an ‘area requiring urgent action’.

The Australian Spatial Data Infrastructure  (ASDI) is a national initiative that is being implemented by the Spatial Information Council (ANZLIC) to provide better access to essential spatial data, and to increase the effective and efficient use of existing data. It aims to ensure that users of spatial data will be able to acquire consistent datasets to meet their requirements, even though the data are collected and maintained by different authorities. The concept of the ASDI is not to establish a central database, but to set up a distributed network of databases, managed by individual government and industry custodians.

Discovering spatial data

An important first step toward the ASDI initiative was the Australian Spatial Data Directory (ASDD) hosted by Geoscience Australia, which allows users to search for geospatial information from all jurisdictions. The ASDD was launched in 1998 and has since steadily grown in content to become the key gateway for access to spatial information in Australia.

All states and territories now maintain an online directory for the discovery of spatial data (see Table 1). These directories can be accessed directly or through the ASDD, where they can be searched in conjunction with nodes implemented by Australian Government agencies and commercial organisations. Despite this, Australian Government agencies attempting to achieve national outcomes are still concerned that some state and territory agencies may not fully appreciate the value of spatial data by. The Australian Government considers that the greatest challenge is in raising awareness and building capacity for using spatial data across all jurisdictions.

Table 1: Some key national and state data directories for the online discovery of geospatial information
Jurisdiction Internet address of data directory
Australian Capital Territory Geographic Data Directory
Australian Spatial Data Directory (ASDD)
New South Wales Spatial Data
Northern Territory Spatial Data Directory
Queensland Spatial Data (QSIIS)
South Australian Spatial Information Directory (uses the ASDD)
Tasmanian Spatial Data Directory (uses the ASDD)
Victorian Spatial Data Directory
Western Australian Land Information System (WALIS) Interragator

Further steps towards interoperability

The introduction of the Australian Government Spatial Data Access and Pricing policy in 2002 generated a number of other Australian Government programmes that have since increased the accessibility and usability of spatial and non-spatial data. Such initiatives include a whole-of-government license registration service for scheduled datasets and a new Australian Government metadata profile that is based on international metadata standards (ISO 19115). Metadata are structured summaries of information that describes datasets. Standardising the format of metadata means that datasets can be efficiently catalogued in data directories and, consequently, more easily discovered, accessed and used for many purposes.

To facilitate the online delivery and sharing of information by Australian Government agencies, the Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO) is producing a set of standards and guidelines known as the Interoperability Framework . Interoperability is the ability of systems to exchange and use information and services through the application of open standards. Interoperability is required for data and information to be easily exchanged and used on different computers with different software. Examples of interoperability in action include the Western Australian Shared Land Information Platform , Information Queensland , Australia’s Virtual Herbarium  and the ongoing development of the National Data Network , led by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The Audit is also working towards the development of standards for natural resources data collection, storage and dissemination using open standards and interoperability.

Use of the Internet for data dissemination and environmental reporting

The Australian Government Online Policy has encouraged the online reporting of data and information. As a result, it was possible to access a great deal more data for the 2006 state of the environment report (Soe2006) that was previously available on the Internet in 1996 and 2001.

Early pioneers of electronic systems of data delivery in Australia are to be found in both Commonwealth and state agencies. For example, in January 1993 the Australian National Botanic Gardens went online with an innovative multimedia Internet site that predated the World Wide Web (Hilvert 1996). The Environmental Resources Information Network (ERIN) achieved connectivity with the Internet in 1992 (Kaye 1992) and by the end of 1993, both ERIN and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service had made information available through the Internet (Boston 1993). The Western Australian Land Information System (WALIS) was influential in establishing whole-of-government strategies for the management and delivery of land information, which were an important developmental step towards statewide, online information delivery. Other pioneers of note include Community Access to Natural Resources Information (CANRI) in New South Wales and the Tasmanian Government’s state of the environment reporting website.

Most states and territories are now involved in online reporting of environmental information, including delivery of state of the environment reports. The Australian and Tasmanian governments also provide downloads of background data and information to support their state of the environment reports.

Technological advances in data methodologies

Technological advances in data gathering, storage, analysis and processing have resulted in the accumulation of environmental data at an increasing rate. For example, the National Carbon Accounting System  (NCAS) tracks emissions (sources) and removals (sinks) of greenhouse gases from Australian land-based systems. The system underpins National Greenhouse Gas Inventory reporting, and provides a basis for emissions projections to assess progress towards meeting Australia's emissions target. NCAS accounts for these activities through a highly integrated, digital map-based information system. It couples remotely sensed landcover change, land use and management, climate and soils data (including mapped information from thousands of satellite images), with greenhouse accounting and ecosystem modelling to calculate the changes in carbons in a particular area over time.

The Australian Greenhouse Office has significantly improved the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory compilation process through the deployment of the Australian Greenhouse Emissions Information System  (AGEIS). AGEIS is a database system that provides centralised estimates of emissions, inventory compilation, reporting, data verification and storage functionality. It was developed over three years to meet Australia’s national inventory reporting commitments under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. In addition, the system facilitates the effective management of the large volume of data associated with inventory compilation and allows the automated population of a number of reports that form Australia’s Greenhouse Accounts. These accounts provide emissions estimates at the national, state and territory and economic sector (ANZSIC) levels. AGEIS also provides enhanced accessibility and transparency of Australia’s National Greenhouse Gas Inventory estimates with online, interactive access to more than 100 000 emission results, background supporting data, and time-series analyses.

Sentinel Fire  is the result of collaboration between the Defence Imagery and Geospatial Organisation (DIGO), CSIRO Land and Water, and Geoscience Australia to design and build a system to detect and monitor bushfires at a continental scale. Algorithms are applied to satellite imagery to create surface temperature images that are fed into a spatial database. The database can be queried through the Sentinel Fire Mapping website to produce near real time maps, or to dynamically monitor fire locations across Australia.

The development of reporting tools has streamlined the collection and processing of information into national databases such as the National Pollutant Inventory  (NPI). The NPI, for example, provides web-based reporting of the types and amounts of substances being emitted into the Australian environment. Nearly 4 000 facilities from a wide range of industry sectors are required to report emissions of polluting substances annually for inclusion in the database, along with government estimates of non-industry (or diffuse) sources of pollution.

Progress in environmental data collection

Some sets of environmental data have been collected in a regular and consistent fashion for many years, such as weather and climate data amassed by the Bureau of Meteorology, social and agricultural data collected by ABS, river regulation data held by the Murray Darling Basin Commission , and continental ‘greenness’ monitoring (using the Normalised Difference Vegetation Index applied to satellite imagery) carried out fortnightly by the Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH) since 1991.

Other nationally consistent datasets of use for state of the environment reporting and other environmental reporting purposes include the Water Account 2000–01 (ABS 2002), the Australian River Assessment System (AusRivAS) dataset on river health established under the National River Health Program in 1994, and environmental databases maintained by the Australian Government Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH) such as the Australian Wetlands Database, the Australian Heritage Database and the Species Profiles and Threats Database (SPRAT).

Improvements have been observed since SoE2001 in terms of national environmental data collection and management. Some examples of new, better or updated data sets, data collations and methodologies that have become available during the past five years are:

  • the Australian Terrestrial Biodiversity Assessment (NLWRA 2002b), which filled a gap in the national collation and interpretation of information on Australia’s biodiversity; several other Audit reports have been published since SoE2001, including Australia’s Native Vegetation (NLWRA 2002c), and the Australian Catchment, River and Estuary Assessment (NLWRA 2002d)
  • the establishment of the Neptune Data Directory, by the National Oceans Office in collaboration with CSIRO Marine Division (now CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research); this metadatabase enhances public access to marine and coastal spatial data, and has complemented existing geospatial data directories already in place to support the ASDD.
  • the greater focus on embedding monitoring and evaluation into natural resource management projects for the Natural Heritage Trust (NHT) and National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (NAP) (NRMMC 2005)
  • a number of environmental datasets have been updated or made available during this period, including biodiversity-related data from the Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS), the National Forest Inventory Australia, which includes the National Plantation Inventory , the Collaborative Australian Protected Areas Database (CAPAD) and the SPRAT, Australian Heritage and AusRivAS databases
  • significant progress has been made through the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council Taskforce on Wetlands and Waterbirds in developing a framework for an Australian Wetland Inventory (AWI); the AWI aims to establish a consistent basis for wetland classification and assessment, to inform priorities for management and monitoring, and to provide a platform for the delivery of national data and information while reducing the duplication across state and territory, regional and local government jurisdictions
  • all jurisdictions continue to support and input to the national Directory of Important Wetlands in Australia dataset, with new sites having been added since 2001 by New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, and work progressing in Tasmania.
  • the Australian Natural Heritage Assessment Tool (ANHAT) has been developed through a range of collaborative projects with a wide range of institutions. ANHAT includes data from a variety of sources on terrestrial vertebrates, plants and a selection of invertebrate groups and marine animals. While new datasets are being developed for a range of other taxa, work is also being invested in improving data coverage and accessing additional state-based resources.

Benefits of collaboration

There are many examples where increased collaboration among agencies since 2001 has achieved efficiencies in data integration, management and access. Some of these include the following:

  • Collaborative efforts between the states and territories and the Australian Government to implement National Environment Protection Measures have meant that data on air quality and the emission of substances to the environment have continued to be collected, resulting in nationally consistent air quality and emissions data. These datasets are publicly available; for example, the NPI  and the Environment Protection and Heritage Council.
  • The Australian Government and the states and territories’ have collaborated to refresh, update and improve existing datasets such as the National Vegetation Information System (NVIS). NVIS is a detailed database of Australian native vegetation types, developed to enhance natural resource management and planning. NVIS can be applied to practices such as biodiversity conservation, salinity control, fuel load management and improving water quality. Almost all of the data in the NVIS database is provided by the states and territories, having been derived to meet their particular needs over decades of vegetation surveys and mapping using a variety of methods and classifications. The NVIS is managed through the Executive Steering Committee for Australian Vegetation Information (ESCAVI), which comprises senior representatives from the Australian Government and each state and territory. This collaboration represents a major achievement in combining disparate data to form a consistent national collation.
  • Australia’s Virtual Herbarium  (AVH) is a botanical information resource that provides immediate access to the wealth of data associated with scientific plant specimens in each Australian herbarium. The AVH is a collaborative project of the state, territory, and Commonwealth herbaria that is being developed under the auspices of the Council of Heads of Australian Herbaria (CHAH), which represents the major Australian collections.
  • ABS and the Australian Bureau for Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) are cooperating to derive a nested survey design to avoid duplication of effort by two different but similar surveys conducted by each agency (the biennial natural resource management survey and the triennial natural resource management on-farms survey respectively). The next set of surveys in 2007 will be based on this new design.
  • ABS and ANZLIC have worked in partnership to improve national-level spatial data, for example, in developing ‘Mesh Block’ boundaries that will allow much more flexibility and detail in the spatial mapping of statistical information, particularly in regional areas or for small local areas without breaching privacy guidelines.
  • PSMA (Public Sector Mapping Agencies) Australia facilitates the creation of and access to national spatial datasets such as administrative boundaries and other cadastral information for commercial resale to government, industry and the community. PSMA Australia is an unlisted public company wholly owned by the state, territory and Australian Governments, hence such products are examples of the commercially driven development of high quality products that meet fundamental government data priorities.
  • The Audit coordinates the development of a framework for natural resource management information, through specific National Coordination Committees comprised of representatives from key Australian, state and territory agencies. The committees advise the Audit on national information needs for each natural resource theme, issue or ‘matter for target’ under the National Monitoring and Evaluation Framework.
  • Service agreements between government agencies (bilateral agreements and Memoranda of Understanding) and whole-of-government data purchasing and licensing arrangements are being progressed by an increasing number of agencies. Such collaborations are being actively promoted in Australian Government through the efforts of the Spatial Data Management Group and AGIMO (for example, the National Services Improvement Framework ).

The National Water Initiative

The National Water Commission is an independent statutory body in the Prime Minister’s portfolio. Its role is to drive the national water reform agenda. Established under the National Water Commission Act 2004, the Commission provides advice to the Council of Australian Governments and the Australian Government on national water issues. The Council of Australian Governments has developed a blueprint for reform —the National Water Initiative —and significant funding is available to invest in water resource projects that support water reform objectives.