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Joining the big data bullet train

The Australian Tax Office has been chosen to lead Australia's next wave of data analysis in a move labelled a "sea change" in the way government agencies deal with statistics.

It was chosen ahead of the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the nation's leading statistical body.

The ATO will be heading the new Data Analytics Centre of Excellence to help shine a light on terabytes and terabytes of data captured by various government agencies. 

The Australian Government Information Office (AGIMO) announced the centre of excellence last week, as the push for big data in government circles intensifies. The new initiative aims to encourage agencies to share information, skills, and to help identify trends useful for shaping government policy.

The first meeting between the ATO, AGIMO, academics and representatives from other departments to set up the centre took place in early March and is part of Australian Public Service ICT Strategy 2012-2015. AGIMO CIO Glenn Archer release the Government's Big Data Issues paper on Friday.

Its terms of reference are currently being drafted but the new initiative aims to encourage agencies to share information and experiences on data analytics skills, tools and techniques, and identify trends to shape whole of government policy development.

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"The outreach and communication activities of the centre will be determined once the terms of reference are agreed," an ATO spokesperson said.

"AGIMO is separately developing a strategy for the management of big data and has established a working group which will work closely with the Data Analytics Centre of Excellence."

Notably, the initiative is not being led by ABS, the nation's leading statistical body which last week was heavily involved in the NatStats 2013 Conference that featured big data discussions and examples in government.

Many agencies like the ATO and the Department of Human Services, Department of Defence, CSIRO and NICTA are already be heavily involved in large-scale data analysis efforts, including the use of big data tools.

"Today data analytics supports improved public administration across the Australian Public Service," said the ATO spokesperson. 

"Data matching and data sharing allows government agencies to share information to provide improved service. For example, sharing of some prescribed Centrelink and Medicare data allows pre-filling of e-tax labels. Aggregated data is provided to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, which reduces the double-reporting load for many of our businesses."

Ovum analyst, Kevin Noonan, described the centre initiative as timely and something of a "sea change" for the way AGIMO works with industry.

"In the past the intent has been there, but some follow through [was] needed to improve a little bit," Noonan said.

He said the initiative was constructive.

"They have engaged an agency in Tax which has a very clear interest in the topic from a business perspective – they have skin in the game – and they are going to be able to do a good job in leading it. And they are going out to industry and looking for input.

"In terms of driving something like big data, which is quite a difficult topic to get your head around, this is a good practical approach that lines up all of the key players."

Although agencies are expected to assist each other in developing analytical capabilities and already share data sets, currently big data activities are conducted independently by each agency. There are no current plans to set up a special outfit that sits above all agencies to conduct analysis on all available data.

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