Developing a better data-normal through COVID-19
Coming into the Department of Health during a pandemic, I knew the work was going to be engaging and purposeful. What I’ve found really inspiring though is just how well our data people get deeply into the context around what they’re doing and have a great grasp on what kind of difference their data-driven insights can make. This curiosity leads our people to make relevant and sometimes surprising connections to even more data, and people from unlikely places to contribute to what we’re doing. It can at times be quite impactful.
In a previous Data Profession news article - Getting to know Phillip Gould - some of the interesting data that Department of Health is a custodian for was mentioned – with the Australian Immunisation Register being one key dataset. It’s clearly a valuable data asset to analyse during the COVID-19 vaccination rollout, but there are lots of other datasets and analysis techniques that help us understand and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic too. The most surprising has been the intersect with other organisations’ data, and the data relationships built with the healthcare sector, state and territory governments, academic institutions, and the private sector.
For COVID-19, we are accessing and analysing data collections from across Commonwealth, state and territory governments, the private sector, international research, and the media that can help with understanding aspects of health workforce availability, hospital beds and equipment, treatment drugs, testing programs, exposure points, community mobility, vaccinations and so much more. We’re using data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Australian Taxation Office, the Department of Social Security, Services Australia, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Google, and data acquired through partnerships with state government and peak bodies like the Australian and New Zealand Intensive Care Society.
As you might imagine, getting the blend of this data accurate and optimised for purpose is a tricky business – but we are lucky enough to have built on strong partnerships across government, academia, and the private sector to help. We also have a range of advisory groups with external experts that we test with and validate the way we put key data analysis together. Having their input is so very important in making sure we think of multiple angles and can focus on the most salient data points in what are often short timeframes to make a difference. We consult advisory groups on Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CaLD) people, people with a disability, and First Nations people to name a few. These groups include people with lived experience, service providers, academics and advocates from outside government and are key to focussing us on what matters with the data. We also use our international networks to learn from successful techniques – and to use proxy data where Australia has data gaps.
In the time I’ve been with the Department of Health, I’ve seen some material shifts in practice with data sharing. I’ve seen us increase transparency over Health System data between states and territories and the Commonwealth – making inroads toward improved standards and interoperability as a bi-product. We’ve sped up the process of releasing health data safely to those that can improve the health and wellbeing of Australians and have supported new linkages within the states and territories with their health data. We have invested in strengthening collaboration with jurisdictions and academics in our data projects, including sharing methodology, data, and code in the same environments – it’s been a very powerful way to get on the same page, improve the insights we produce, and strengthen the advocacy behind the evidence going into policy-making processes. This progress fits well with our recently launched Data Strategy 2022-25, focussing on 7 strategic objectives: Trust; Governance; Discoverability; Sharing; Data Quality & Integration; Staff Capability; and Technology.
The APS has a strong history of responding well in crises, cutting through the usual risk aversion or legal complexities (perceived or real!). I’ve experienced operating in crisis with data before… and this time around we’ve built up our reserve of new learnings and case studies. Wherever possible, we will emulate successes, avoid repeating mistakes, open up the pathways and streamline our processes ongoing. This is not going to be a blip on the radar in the Health portfolio – we’ve opened a few new doors and walked through them and there’s no need to go back.
I’ll be winding up my 16-month secondment at the end of October and am hugely appreciative for the latitude granted by my colleagues in the Health portfolio that have allowed data and analytics initiatives to progress. I know the work is in safe hands with an exceptionally skilled, professional, and dedicated workforce and leadership. I’m looking forward to taking the learnings and experiences I’ve had forward and applying them into my future work.