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Keynote address to the 2nd Annual Conference of the Australia and New Zealand Division of Automated Mapping Facilities Management International


Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for the Environment

2 July 1997

It's a pleasure to be here today to address such a diverse group of both industry and government professionals.

A competitiveness study of the information industries found that, amongst other things, Australia is not growing enough local companies of sufficient size, and is not attracting globally scaled transnational investments in these sectors. This study has been a major input to the work of the Information Industries Taskforce which was established to provide advice to the government for the development of a strategy to take Australia's Information Industry into the new millenium. The results of this Taskforce, chaired by Professor Ashley Goldsworthy, are due later this month.

This meeting provides an opportunity to focus on the advantages that technology can deliver both today, and in the future. As a federal politician, you will guess that my technological literacy is low - my presence here today is indeed a sign that the technology and skills that you represent are indeed "entering the mainstream!"

As I become more dependant on the Internet and email, I am drawn to the thoughts of Alvin Toffler in his book "The Politics of the Third Wave". Toffler suggested the 'Information Technology' Revolution will be - perhaps already is- having as profound an effect on mankind as the Agricultural Revolution did around 8000 BC when Stone Age man gave away his club and nomadic way of life in favour of the plough and a permanent abode. And later when people moved off farms into factories from rural villages and hamlets into bustling, impersonal, squalid and dirty cities.

Both these revolutions had a tumultuous impact on the civilisations of their respective eras - they all marked a radical transformation of the settled order of the day. The comfortable familiarity of life and living was thrown overboard as new different ways of living, working and praying took over - as knowledge exploded, and questions and new thoughts rejected the traditions and accepted answers of the day.

Those changes were also marked by upheaval - long wars, famine, plague, new beliefs, new science, new loyalties. In the case of each of these major turning points - or revolutions - in our civilisation the results have been a society that was more intense and in some ways more caring. There is, I believe, something in Toffler's suggestion, that much of the turmoil and uncertainty currently befalling us in the late 20th century, are the result of the transition from the late Industrial or manufacturing age to the early Information age.

The Information Age is dawning for us while some parts of the world like New Guinea are still in transition from the Stone Age to the Agricultural Age. The information age brings with it a completely different way of living, working and relaxing. Family arrangements are changing, political systems are under challenge, and the advances of the computer may well mean that our city landscapes will change. The familiar centralised CBD office blocks and retail shops may well disappear as more people conduct their business and leisure activities from within their home environment. In some ways, while we have more ways of keeping in touch with each other, we may well become more detached. So it is your industry or profession that will be to the forefront of our society as we move into the Third Wave of civilization.

But for the here and now, I would like to come down to earth, and reflect on some of my own portfolio responsibilities in the Bureau of Meteorology, the Antarctic Division, and the Green Corps as well as those of Senator Hill, who is of course Minister for the Environment, in so far as they relate to Information Technology.

In meteorology, the possible applications of AM/FM technology are almost unlimited, with uses ranging from facilities management of the observational network to climatology and forecasting. I'm sure everyone is now familiar with the Southern Oscillation Index as a predictor of the El Nino effect, now dreaded by Australian farmers as an indication of drought. By taking information about the state of the environment obtained from satellite images and combining it with geographical maps, all farmers have immediate access to information that is vital for farm management. Being in a state of knowledge about the future, represents a significant social change.

Access to these sorts of predictions are dramatically changing the way that we manage our daily lives - we can be much more pro-active, rather than living in uncertainty and making somewhat random decisions.

In the Antarctic, expeditioners working in fields such as geological surveying or atmospherics are also reaping the benefits of Automated Mapping and Facilities Management. Advances in the telecommunications systems means that data can be gathered, analysed and immediately sent to anywhere else in the world for use by those of us who prefer a less isolated way of life. As a novice to this technology, I continue to be amazed at being able to view images beamed directly from our Antarctic stations onto the computer on my desk in Canberra.

The Green Corps is our new nationwide initiative to encourage young Australians to take an active interest in the improvement and conservation of their local environment. To date, some 60 odd projects are already under way or have been completed with many more on the drawing board. Needless to say, a program of such magnitude requires the management of human resources as well as an online information database, that must be constantly updated so it can be accessed from anywhere across the country.

Many of you will know that the Howard Government has put into place a comprehensive environment strategy, the centre-piece of which is the Natural Heritage Trust. Implementing the Trust will be a massive endeavour. It will require detailed planning, a thorough understanding of the environmental problems we are facing, and ways of measuring the success of our actions.

In addition we will need to communicate throughout the continent with the thousands of people and voluntary groups who are involved in tree-planting programmes, Waterwatch activities and the like, and will need to exchange both information and data.

We need to be able to transform the massive and complex information base on the environment into a form that decision-makers can use as they develop policies and priorities for action. In federal government we are acutely aware of the need to base planning and decision-making on the best available information. We will need to be drawing on the latest technologies to pull the information together.

It's not only at the national scale that we need to draw information together to achieve the best outcomes in the interests of sustainable development- in my own 'stomping ground' in North Queensland there are numerous regional and local planning issues like the formulation of the Wet Tropic Rainforest Management Plan, a massive document - the formulation of which dragged on for 6 years. This and the planning of the gas pipeline network will draw on automated mapping technologies such as geographic information systems (GIS) - technologies with which this audience is well acquainted.

While GIS systems promise to be a powerful tool, they are currently severely hampered by the limited availability of suitable data. The old adage of 'garbage in, garbage out' applies - without data of a high enough quality, these systems will never be able to contribute to the high quality decisions that we need.

In Australia, this data problem is particularly acute, due to the physical vastness of our country and the relatively small number of people engaged in the collection of information.

This major shortfall is being addressed by the Howard government through the Natural Heritage Trust programmes, and particularly with the Land and Water Audit, a $32 million programme over 5 years, which will give nationwide appraisal of the state of Australia's natural resource base.

It will provide for the first time an independent, objective assessment of the extent of degradation arising from approximately 20 key types of land and water problems and will include an economic analysis of each problem.

This will not only highlight where effort is being duplicated, but will also point to the information gaps that need to be filled. Collation and application of related data will help to identify errors or anomalies, ultimately improving the quality of that data. Such a large amount of environmental information will clearly need to be analysed and integrated by sophisticated.

Several other Natural Heritage Trust programmes involve community groups, and will allow for a two-way exchange of environmental information, with community groups not only accessing national environmental databases, but also contributing back to those databases. These include the National Vegetation Initiative, the National Landcare Programme, Murray Darling Basin 2001 Project.

Whilst automated technologies such as GIS and satellite image analysis can tell us a lot about our environment, they are really providing us with an hypothesis, which needs to be fully tested on the ground.

With a greater number of Australians collecting information through Natural Heritage Trust programmes such as the Land and Water Audit and the National Vegetation Initiative, and then accessing and using that information, there will be a high potential for the community to validate that information.

At the federal government level, every effort is being made to provide the Australian community with access to national environmental databases using online technologies, enabling users to determine information parameters and extract the information that they need to translate into activities on the ground.

One very important initiative in this area has been the establishment of the Australian Coastal Atlas. The Howard Government has given an extremely high priority to the protection of the coastal zone, and has recognised that critical to the success of any environmental policy, is the need for accurate, reliable and accessible information.

The Coastal Atlas will build a cooperative network, with state and local governments compiling and providing data which will be made available to all through the Internet - this is just one example of the government's ongoing commitment and leadership in providing environmental information of a high quality through the Internet.

Online access is being made to a number of other environmental databases, providing information on endangered species, vegetation, heritage sites and pollution. You can even apply to join a Green Corp via the Internet after you have studied the various projects on offer.

The National Pollutant Inventory is another case in point - governments are looking at new ways of achieving environmental protection, through informed networks of both industry and the community, which can 'self-regulate' to encourage best practice. The National Pollutant Inventory will compile information about the emissions of major pollutants, and provide that information using geographic systems through the Internet. Users will be able to query the situation in their own local area, as well as put that into national context, and even global context.

The Internet has been particularly valuable in allowing us to put things into a global perspective. The GLOBE project, a US initiative in which Australia is a partner, shows what can be done. In GLOBE, school students collect information about the environment, and feed that information into computers through the Internet. This is then modelled through visualisation systems, combined with global satellite images, and instantly returned back to the students through the Internet.

Broader access to environmental information will require two essential ingredients: a network with the capacity to deliver a vast amount of information, and a geographical or map interface to enable users to extract the information relevant to their area of interest.

The available capacity of the Internet will need to increase substantially to provide potential environmental users with the full power of data access that geographic information systems can provide.

And the geographic information systems will themselves need to provide for much more efficient ways of serving information through computer networks.

Both of these issues are ones which this group is well placed to address, enabling us to move forward to a new age of electronic environmental management.

To fully exploit automation technologies in the environmental field we will need better and cheaper communications technologies, and improved capabilities of geographic information systems, particularly in the area of data storage and network utilisation.

If we can successfully automate the collection of data, the information problem will be ultimately solved. Although I suspect that environmental data collection can never be fully automated, satellite image analysis is providing some of the answers here. However, the real application of this technology to environmental problems is still very limited.

It will be up to this group to come up with some of the answers to the questions that I have raised - answers that will lead us forward to a better environment in the twenty-first century.

I know Alvin Toffler raised the question of what part the Information Technology revolution played in the downfall of the political regimes which used to completely isolate its citizens behind the 'Iron Curtain'. Information Technology may have been used to melt down the here-to-for impregnable Iron Barrier. Toffler even suggests that the form of representative democracy which we now have and which became prominent at the time of the Industrial Revolution might no longer be relevant in today's technological age!

You may be instrumental in the design of a new form of Government, one that does away with politicians and most bureaucrats! Perhaps with the instant access provided by information technology the world will be able to vote on a particular 'Question of the Day' before breakfast, then by lunchtime, the supercomputer at the centre of the universe will have crunched the numbers and by early afternoon we will all be emailed the result and have a new Tax Law to abide by!

This suggests to me that as we ride the crest of Toffler's Third Wave, the technology you develop will influence social change to a great degree. This brings with it the responsibility of a careful and sensitive approach and an understanding of the impact that new technology can have on our world. Yours is an exciting industry but one must temper its expertise and leading edge standing in a way that benefits all mankind.

I'm sure that your conference will do just that over the next couple of days, and I and Senator Hill, and the Australian Government, wish you well in your deliberations and debate. It is certainly my belief that you will have a key role to play in our efforts to secure a better environment.

Commonwealth of Australia