Date: Monday, September 11, 2017


The advent of open data is undoubtedly playing a pivotal role in delivering agricultural innovations and supporting breakthroughs in nutrition. But an underlying concern persists that may limit the opportunities promised by open data. On the one hand many public officials still want to secure attribution rights, while on the other, researchers and businesses are restricting progress through fear of copyright infringements and loss of potential revenue derived from exploiting primary research.

Baden Appleyard, National Programme Director of AusGOAL, Australia’s public sector open data organisation, has been working with the country’s states, territories and Commonwealth Government in Canberra. He has seen growing buy-in to the process that supports open data. He says, “Initially it was treated as a structural IT problem, not an information or data management issue.“ 

Initially Australia’s public bodies, states and central government shared information through a complex maze of data sharing agreements. But when a crisis struck, such as a large scale forest fire or prolonged drought, the urgency to acquire vital information trumped the need to follow intricate transfer protocols.

“We had to move from a need-to-know to a need-to-share basis of operation,” explains Appleyard, adding, “data sharing had to deal effectively and speedily with copyright and liability issues and to deal with these issues it involves the use of Creative Commons licenses.” Looking across the world Appleyard, an open access lawyer, believes the public sector in Australia was a frontrunner in implementing open data, but recognises that the USA kick-started the sharing of government data. 

“Obama galvanized the push for open data and the need to benefit from all the acquired data stored by public institutions and governments. Under Obama’s presidency the creation of, and his administration’s encouragement for open government portals inspired the drive for free information and inspired open data,” he said.

As a result, argues Appleyard, public sector data is now more open than ever before, with many countries making available data for research, business and improvements in agriculture. Yet, even as AusGOAL and other government open data services employ attribution licensing tools, there remain issues linked to ownership and copyright.

“You can’t just invite people to share their data without training or simply tell public officers to share departmental or government data. 

Ownership and liability for data remain important concerns.” says Appleyard. But he believes that while there is a legitimate need to address such issues, they should not slow or curtail the flow of open data. He points to Creative Commons and explains it has a range of licences which permit individuals or organisations to re-use data so long as attribution is given. AusGOAL describes itself as the government and research lead of Creative Commons in Australia. 

Unsurprisingly, then, it is keen to move public institutions and government away from an ‘All Rights Reserved’ approach, which invariably leaves information used and in a state of limbo. Users are unsure if data from a public source can be fully incorporated into a new product or innovation or whether the original owner maintains a stake in their work. According to the information provided by AusGOAL, implementation of a Creative Commons process doesn’t have to be expensive or difficult. 

In encouraging organisations to consider the licensing process AusGOAL is moving them towards making available as much data as possible. It stresses the need to start the process with “low hanging fruit”, in this context, material that does not contain private or confidential information, or material from external contractors. This can form the foundation of an organisation’s contribution to open data.

AusGOAL benefits from a policy introduced in 2009 by the Australian government that requires all departments to work on the premise that data should be open and reusable. This is consistent with Freedom of Information legislation, changing the model of government data away from acquisition, towards a default position that assumes all information can be re-published and incorporated into new products or research. 

Appleyard enthusiastically endorses the approach adopted by the Commonwealth of Australia’s Department of Environment, accepting that everything developed and researched on behalf of the department must be open for re-use, supported by the Creative Commons Attribution licenses. Consequently, data gathered for the department can be easily and quickly interrogated or incorporated into new research or assist innovations.

The ambition is to ensure the highest number of people not only access open data, but benefit from it. AusGOAL promotes the use of blogs and other social media to publicise organisations’ information and make it easily available for reuse by the larger community. 

The AusGOAL website states, “Publicly funded information (and data) should be made available in open formats. Moreover, it should be made available in formats that can be read by freely available software. Publication in more than one (open) format is recommended.”

In 2009, of Australia’s official organisations and public bodies that were required to provide their water data for publication by the government, 196 (out of 214) said yes to Creative Commons Attribution. 

The remainder either did not have data, had no instruments to collect data, or were constitutionally opposed to the fact that the Commonwealth had cast a law to open their data to all. But the vast array of data from the 196 bodies is now being used by farmers, irrigators, and water management organisations to analyse and manage Australian water resources. 

This important pro open data policy was highlighted and endorsed in a report released in 2016 (links to the report, below). AusGOAL was also behind the Australian Bureau of Statistics moving to open access. Now all publicly available government statistical data from the Bureau are available as open data and can been seen in its link.

Appleyard argues that open data is at the core of new innovations in agriculture, used to help create proprietary products. This, he insists, should not result in conflicts over copyright and this is why he advocates for the least-restrictive Creative Commons licences, releasing the potential for open data to enable derivatives and bring added value to products and services. 

"Open data," says Appleyard, “…is open to all competitors in the market, not just the one that dominates, or even, a government that is behaving like a commercial player.”

(search the document for “creative commons”)

Type of resource: Document, Success stories