Chief Information Officer
NSW Department of Land and Water Conservation
and Chair of the NSW Natural Resources Information Management
Strategy Steering Group
The current NSW government's commitment to involving local communities in decision making has significant ramifications for providing access to information held by agencies at all levels of government. NSW government agencies have combined their efforts to provide a mechanism which:
- Supports local decision making across all natural resource and environmental issues affecting local communities, especially in regional and rural areas;
- By providing access to comprehensive information;
- Using information technologies conforming to international best practice.
The foundations of the Community Access to Natural Resources Information (CANRI) Program were laid over the last six years through adoption of a common information management strategy, formulation of common practices and use of standards. The past two years have seen development of a suite of common web-based tools using common data brokering and directories built on these foundations.
The program has been funded for the next four years to increase both content and functionality needed by stakeholders such as communities, rural businesses, catchment boards and other levels of government through partnership arrangements. Challenges remain in engaging with these stakeholders and facilitating access to the full range of information needed to address contentious issues such as salinity, biodiversity, business viability and ecological sustainability.
No one organisation has the intellectual and capital resources to collect data needed to plan and implement all the matters relevant to its charter.
In Australia, natural resource and environmental management functions are spread amongst a number of agencies at Commonwealth, State, Territory and local government levels. It is also characterised by interest in environmental, social and economic outcomes affecting life in local communities, often represented by groups covering a spectrum from conservation through to resource use interests.
Government programs include the Natural Heritage Trust, Landcare and Streamwatch. In NSW there are regional bodies such as the Murray-Darling Basin Commission (MDBC), catchment management boards and water management committees covering various parts of the State.
It was blindingly obvious as long as ten years ago that cooperation was needed between all players if the paucity of information about the natural environment and human impacts was to be addressed. Cooperation was needed through institutional arrangements, adoption of common standards and development of information sharing mechanisms.
In NSW, institutional arrangements were addressed in 1995 by the development of the Natural Resources Information Management Strategy (NRIMS). Implementation of the strategy is now in its fifth year. Parties to the strategy include all NSW natural resource and environmental management agencies, central agencies and the peak local government body. The MDBC has observer status.
The strategy has delivered the fundamentals, including delineation of custodianship over 140 basic data sets and development of a natural resources data directory pointing the way to over 4000 data sets. The strategy has also provided the framework for multi-agency groups to deliver common data in areas such as coastal management, biodiversity, vegetation and salinity. NRIMS is now referenced in all new major natural resource programs in NSW.
The strategy is closely linked upwards into the ANZLIC (the national spatial information council) framework, and in NSW is the physical manifestation of the "natural resource cluster" within the context of the NSW Information Management and Technology Blueprint. This means that the natural resources sector can influence standards formation, and in turn, adopts broader standards where available. For example, the NSW natural resources data directory is a node of the Australian Spatial Data Directory.
In its second three plan in 1998, the NRIMS steering group, with active support from agency heads, developed a more comprehensive agenda to deliver information sharing. At this time, the NSW government had set a course to involve local communities in decision-making across all natural resource issues. The new NRIMS plan was able to encapsulate this policy agenda, with a clear focus on unlocking access to State data sources and to actively engage with local communities in information sharing.
A business case to develop a common Internet based mechanism was formulated by partner agencies. A prototype called the Integrated Community Mapping and Information Support System was created as a proof of concept.
In 2000, a government-wide program funded for four years, under the title of the Community Access to Natural Resources (CANRI) program, was approved to:
- Support local decision making across all natural recsource and environemntal issues affecting local communities, especially in regional and rural areas;
- By providing access to comprehensive information from many sources;
- Using information technologies conforming to international best practice.
NSW agencies had nailed their colours to the mast and went on a concerted campaign to sell the concept at senior levels of government. This campaign culminated in a launch of the first CANRI products at Parliament House in June 2001. These products included:
- NSW Natural Resources Atlas
- NSW Natrual Resources Data Directory (Interent version)
- NSW node of the Australian Coastal Atlas
- NSW State of the Environment Direct
- NSW River Information System
- Soil profile database
- Hunter River Integrated Telemetry System
- NSW Wildlife Atlas
- Landcare network
At the launch, the Deputy Premier encapsulated the intent of CANRI:
"CANRI is a really exciting project…What CANRI does is not only bring [government information] together, without taking it away from departments but, more importantly, makes it accessible to the community. That's how modern government should be."
Details about the CANRI program, launch information, contact information and access to the suite of applications can be found at www.canri.nsw.gov.au.
1. Address the fundamentals
It should be as simple as ABC. Access, brokerage and conduct. The aim should be to provide open access with no limitations, facilitated by brokerage (in the case of CANRI it is a piece of software), underpinned by a professional approach to data quality, privacy and ethical behaviour.
2. Communicate the big picture
Support of senior people is the key to getting adequate project resources. Heads of agencies saw the vision and supported it, because it benefited their own agency's ability to deliver and charted a way to actively cooperate across government to get community outcomes. The personal support of the head of the Department of Land and Water Conservation in sponsoring the CANRI business case and senior executives in the Premier's Department in raising its profile in government were key success factors.
3. Be inclusive
No limitations were placed on who could participate. CANRI was able to dissolve barriers between agencies, jurisdictions, interest groups and the community. Subject only to privacy or confidentiality, all data is freely available to anyone, in a form that addresses the lowest common denominator of functionality. More sophistication can come later.
4. Allow user advocacy
The prototype was focussed on the agency sources of data. By launch time, the focus was more clearly on community users. A Community Reference Group has been set up separate from the technical support group. Its role is to allow clear signals direct from key users into the further enhancement of the CANRI framework. Criticisms are unavoidable and agencies will be open to direct feedback on issues such as data quality. This is the only way to make rapid improvement, so the watchword for professionals threatened by criticisms, is "get over it".
5. Keep it flexible
It is important that the technology not restrict the scope or flexibility of the information sharing environment. Adoption of standards allows it to grow. Players associated with CANRI have been in the forefront of advocating international standards for distributed web map serving. This is bearing fruit, witnessed for example in access to NASA climate data with no further development required.
The three level architecture of application, broker and data server has enabled the needs of both users and data sources to be served and for further innovation in software development to be easily assimilated.
It has taken six years to develop an open information sharing environment for natural resources information in NSW. It has required:
- Resolving the fundamentals
- Engaging all the players
- Efforts by committed individuals
- Support from senior levels
- Access to intellectual and financial resources needed to make it happen
However, if attention to all these factors is not maintained, the effort will ultimately fail, as players go back to their comfort zones. Cooperation requires nurturing. It needs ongoing goodwill and support from a growing number of people in government, the private sector and most of all, in local communities.
The author wishes to acknowledge the efforts of many people over the years who have helped develop the CANRI vision and worked tirelessly to make it happen. This paper is dedicated to them.