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Geoscience Australia facing data management woes – ANAO report

by Andrew Starc •
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Making an efficient and effective choice of content management system has been a challenging and unsuccessful exercise for many Australian Government agencies, despite being on the ICT agenda for the better part of a decade.

Most agencies manage to avoid any deep scrutiny of how successfully they handle data and information management obligations.  However, Geosciences Australia (GA), an agency with an enormous volume of important scientific and other data, has not been so fortunate.

The Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) has released its audit report on Geoscience Australia (GA), focusing heavily on the agency’s ICT problems, including poor data management and a lack of strategic direction.

This is in spite of the fact that GA has been focused on its content management obligations for almost a decade.

From mid 2003 until late 2005, the Australian Government Information Management Office, (AGIMO) ran a forum for agencies, the Content Management Community of Practice, at which a number of agencies, including GA made presentations on their content management experiences. 

In September 2003, GA provided a presentation to this forum entitled.  Choosing a Web Content Management System.  In April 2006, Ann Steward, the Australian Government CIO and Head of AGIMO outlined opportunities in the ‘online space’.  Among other things, this would ‘involve collaboration with GA and the CSIRO’.  

But instead of a rosy report card for this content management thought leader, the Audit report, released on 11 February 2010, outlines recommendations aimed at reforming the problems of poor information management, a lack of data storage capacity and ineffective strategic direction plagues the agency.  In 2008–09, GA expended approximately $53 million on data acquisition, which is approximately 30 per cent of its annual budget.

The problems facing GA fall into two areas – Managing Data & Information and ICT Strategy according to the report.  Based on the report’s findings, the specific problems facing the agency are as follows:

Managing Data & Information: 

  • There is no inventory that documents the purpose, extent and nature of GA’s data and information holdings.  It is therefore not well positioned to appropriately maintain and store its data holdings; knows little about what its data and information holdings are and struggles to keep data accessible according to the report.  The report recommends a cost benefit approach that is based on the importance and priorities of the data and information for GA, to assess and prioritise data; 
  • Barriers to data accessibility included poor information management and the size of datasets.  Poor information management has in turn restricted GA’s ability to provide maximum access to its data.  While all new data is required to have metadata, for older data, metadata is often inaccurate and needs to be reviewed and corrected. Without accurate metadata it is difficult for users to search and access products; 
  • The size of some datasets precludes them from being accessible online as current Internet speeds are insufficient to carry the load;
  • There are data holdings on paper, CDs and DVDs or in analogue format that are yet to be fully assessed to determine whether they should be maintained and copied to new storage media, made accessible by incorporating them into existing holdings, or archived;
  • Currently, GA does not have sufficient storage space in its corporate systems to store and back up its data and information holdings. The report observed that an interim arrangement was implemented in June 2008, which increased data storage capacity from 20 terabytes to 120 terabytes.  There is also a Mass Storage Project underway, which is designed to put in place a scalable and sustainable storage solution;
  • GA is currently experiencing data growth well in excess of the average for public and private sector agencies.  Its current storage infrastructure was not capable of scaling up to meet the anticipated data growth; and
  • GA could not release some of its data as it did not have the appropriate licenses to cover the use of the data.  The Office of Spatial Data Management (OSDM) licensing process that is used by GA does not have the ability to restrict the production of derivative products or only allow the non-commercial use of their data. 

ICT Strategy:

In 2008, GA developed its Information Communications Technology (ICT) Strategic Framework for 2008–11, which outlined the need for more efficient information management and a revised ICT strategy.  With respect to this strategic framework, the audit report criticised that

  • “…there was little focus on strategies and activities to address current and emerging information management issues and no strategic information management plan was developed.  While the need for a strategic ICT plan was identified as part of the ICT framework, it is yet to be developed.
  • According to the report; “Given the complexity of the information management issues that GA was facing (and continues to deal with) such as the lack of an inventory, devolved information management practices and insufficient storage for data and information, there would be considerable benefits in GA revising its strategic plan;
  • There has been no assessment of GA’s information management environment (as part of developing the Strategic ICT Framework) and little focus on the strategies and activities needed to address current and emerging information management issues;
  • The former CIO and manager of the Information Services Branch (ISB), which maintains and supports GA’s IT systems so that they meet strategic objectives, advised that, in practice, corporate responsibility for information management had not been fully incorporated into the responsibilities of ISB.  Instead, the corporate focus for ISB has been on critical and key information technology infrastructure issues.  As a consequence, previous information management plans had not been reviewed and no new plans had been developed and implemented.
  • GA’s new ICT Strategic Plan will evolve from its existing plan and will be completed by 1 April 2010.  Along with the Product Delivery Enhancement Program, it will cover all of the strategic information management issues.

View the complete Geoscience Australia Audit Report here.

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