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Indigenous Data Sovereignty: More than scholarship, it’s a movement

There’s growing acknowledgement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and communities have been “researched to death” since the early days of colonisation, yet given little control over or access to data that is collected.

The emerging Indigenous data sovereignty movement asserts that Indigenous peoples across the globe have inherent and inalienable rights relating to the collection, ownership and application of data about them and their lands and lives.

In the #LongRead below, Goori researcher, writer and journalist Jack Latimore reports for the Croakey Conference News Service from a recent symposium on Indigenous data sovereignty held in Melbourne, which wants to build momentum in Australia, including through a national network like the Maori-led Te Mana Raraunga. You can follow him on Twitter at @LatimoreJack.

The symposium was hosted by the University of Melbourne in partnership with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS). Croakey’s coverage was sponsored by the Lowitja Institute, Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research.

***

Jack Latimore image
Jack Latimore

Jack Latimore reports:

Indigenous data sovereignty may provide Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with valuable resources to overcome Indigenous disadvantage and realise true self-determination and empowerment, a recent symposium heard.

Hosted over two days, the Indigenous Data Sovereignty symposium at the University of Melbourne brought together representatives of data initiatives from Indigenous communities across Australia with researchers, Indigenous health advocates, government advisors and other data practitioners.

As well as hearing from leading Indigenous Data Sovereignty policy and research “warriors” from Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand, the two-day event heard from community led projects from the Kimberley in Western Australia to Bourke and Brewarrina in New South Wales that are “doing Indigenous data sovereignty already”.

These local examples of project development and governance – and the data yielded within communities – highlighted big gaps in Indigenous data and data sovereignty but also showcased ways to tackle concerns about potential exploitation.

Leading Indigenous academic Professor Marcia Langton, one of the convenors, said data sovereignty concerns the ability and capacity of Indigenous people to locally manage their data “with respect to ownership, access, consent, collection, analysis and reporting”.

She said there is significant evidence –  recognised by the Prime Minister in his 2017 Closing the Gap report – that addressing complex issues of disadvantage for Indigenous Australians “requires the existence of data that is relevant and of high quality”.

“However, the lack of reliable and consistent disaggregated data for Indigenous Australians is striking, resulting in the paucity of evidence-based Indigenous policy-making,” she said.

“Data are not neutral statistics”

Keynote speaker Maggie Walter, a Palawa woman from north eastern Tasmania and Professor of Sociology and Pro Vice-Chancellor of Aboriginal Research and Leadership at the University of Tasmania, told participants that the symposium was important to move the conversation on Indigenous data sovereignty forward in Australia.

“It is our data, our way and our right,” she said.

“I’m so thrilled to hear from the community groups here,” Walter said. “You guys are doing Indigenous data sovereignty already. It is happening already. And it is really heart-warming to see that it is happening.”

However, she said there was also bad news implicit in those initiatives, many of which had arisen because of poor data governance by non-Indigenous organisations previously.

“As Indigenous peoples, we have long been the subject of data collections,”  Walter said.

In Australia, she said that has been mostly done by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the Census, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), hospitals, schools, legal systems, universities and all the data that is being collected now through the Federal Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy programs.

And the private sector is also involved.

“The intent in the way that those data have been gathered and analysed over the years has varied from the benign to the malignant, but what they all have in common is that they have all very rarely been collected by us or for us,” she said.

“And – just as critically – data are not neutral statistics. They are inherently human artefacts and they overtly display the cultural, social and political power imbalance between those collecting and analysing those data, and those of us who are their data subjects.”

In light of these concerns, symposium organisers and participants are aiming to:

  1. develop a nationwide network to empower Indigenous organisations and communities to take advantage of developments in data science and maximise the use of their data resources for community benefit
  2. increase awareness of the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty for local Indigenous communities, researchers, government and other related stakeholders
  3. provide information on custodianship, management of, and reporting and presentation of data, including models of monitoring and evaluation
  4. outline specific strategies and approaches to make better use of data that Indigenous people already have undisputed sovereignty (for example,  the information held by the Indigenous land councils, medical services, legal services etc)
  5. provide information on custodianship, reporting and presentation of data.

IDS Walter start saying no

IDSNo

Data sovereignty cannot be “top-down”

Keynote speakers at the event included Andrew Sporle, a researcher in Indigenous statistics at the University of Auckland, and Dr Tahu Kukutai, Professor of Demography at the University of Waikato.

Both  are founding members of the Maori data sovereignty network, Te Mana Raraunga, a model of Indigenous data governance and advocacy that the convenors of the symposium aim to develop in Australia.

IDS Thkukutai“What we are trying to do in Aotearoa with Te Mana Raraunga is carve out an ultimate vision around our data and our sovereignty and our future and what that might actually look like,” Kukutai said. “It’s about the right of Maori to access, to use, to have governance, to have control over Maori data.”

In defining Maori data, Kukutai said there is “a whole multitude of ways of thinking about data”. It involves data sets and infrastructure, she said, but data can also be cultural artefacts or even the location of significant sites. The real challenge is to be able to capture data in a way that is meaningful and that enables communities to be part of it, she said.

“It’s never going to work as a top-down academic endeavour,” she said. “We absolutely need to work beside our communities in order to do this appropriately.”

That need for community-led data governance and ownership was a common theme emerging from presentations and panel discussions at the symposium, as was the view of data as a tool for realising self-determining aspirations.

With ever-growing cloud-based storage and sharing of data by  business, academic institutions, non-government services and government agencies, Kakutai warned that sharing of Indigenous data can be seen as “a new land grab”.

If there are processes and mechanisms around data protection or data governance, they are focused on individual protection and individual rights rather than collective or community ones and therefore deliver no defined benefit to community, she said.

“At the moment, some of the terminology that I’m hearing is about Indigenous data to be shared, to be discovered, to be opened up, but to be controlled or owned by non-Indigenous governance, non-Indigenous entities, non-Indigenous researchers,” she said.

“There may be rhetoric around benefit to communities, but there’s actually no clear and transparent line of accountability back to communities.”

In such a space, Indigenous communities have opportunities to develop processes, principles, structures, networks and enabling mechanisms to be able to be self-determining in this space, she said.

JL treaty 1JL treaty 2


Bourke: “telling a young person’s story”

IDS community Bourke 2Skye Bullen, the Community Data Manager from the Maranguka Justice Reinvestment Project in Bourke told the symposium how the Maranguka project uses a community-based participatory research approach to reduce the high rate of Aboriginal children and young people’s offending, reoffending and incarceration in  adult prison and youth detention.

“Local knowledge in Bourke is a key contributor to making a concrete and constructive difference,” she said.

Bullen said the Bourke Tribal Council has full control of the data that is collected under the Growing Our Kids Up Safe, Smart and Strong strategy that guides the project, the first major justice reinvestment initiative in Australia.

Further vital information is sourced from other community groups such as the Maranguka Youth Advisory Council, The Journey to Healing Women’s Group, and the Men of Bourke.

“These groups actively participate in the data collection process and the results are openly available to them for things such as policy articulation, planning, monitoring and evaluation,” she said.

Bullen said that the Maranguka project not only ensured that Aboriginal people in Bourke have the right to maintain, control and protect the data that is collected about them, but also govern the direction of the project.

“The first stages of the project focused on building trust between community members and service providers,” she said.

“The data that we collected looked to tell a story about a young Aboriginal person’s journey through the criminal justice system in Bourke. We looked at things such as offending, diversion, bail, sentencing, days and times of offences, and reoffending rates.”

The project also collected data about early life, education, employment, housing, child safety, and health care, including mental health and drug and alcohol issues, she said.

IDS community Bourke
All that information was then fed back to the Bourke Tribal Council which set out an agenda for the Maranguka project, with working groups adopting a ‘test and trial’ approach to determine which activities best drive progress towards the project’s goals and targets.

“Using our shared measurement system, we’re now going to closely monitor our performance and track the activities and adapt our approach as necessary,” she said.

Bullen believes that the project can drive sustained change in Bourke, but she said success involves the community having the power to lead and define outcomes.

The project is focused on giving community members a platform to define their needs, and for working group members to refine their work based on the information collected. Local organisations must work collaboratively with the community to ensure goals are achieved, she said.

An online dashboard is currently being developed, to augment other ways that the project reports via social media, quarterly results and a newsletter, to make sure it  continuously reports transparent, relevant and real-time data back to the working groups and community.

“The value that we find in this collaborative approach is the effective mapping of service sector supply and demand, with subsequent adaptation of services,” she said. “Most importantly change is in the hands of the Bourke community. This allows us to identify and celebrate our achievements.”

Among those early achievements have been a reduction in police cautions, warnings and move-ons, as well as  in driving offences, domestic violence reoffending, and a significant increase in education engagement for the majority of at risk young people.

“Services in Bour