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 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:
- 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
- increase awareness of the importance of Indigenous data sovereignty for local Indigenous communities, researchers, government and other related stakeholders
- provide information on custodianship, management of, and reporting and presentation of data, including models of monitoring and evaluation
- 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)
- provide information on custodianship, reporting and presentation of data.
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.
“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.
Bourke: “telling a young person’s story”
Skye 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.
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 Bourke really benefit from this data being shared with them. It ensures that we’re unlocking our future together,” she said.
Algabonyah Data Unit: tracking progress, performance
Participants also heard about the Algabonyah Data Unit established last year (as part of the Empowered Communities initative) by the Kaiela Institute in Victoria’s Goulburn Murray region, traditional land of the Yorta Yorta people.
Kaiela Institute executive chairman Paul Briggs said one of its major pieces of work will be to deliver a comprehensive annual regional report card to the Algabonyah Community Cabinet, with the first due to be published in December.
The report card will track progress for the local Yorta Yorta community against key indicators and community priorities and the performance of government-funded organisations, to hold the region accountable to the prosperity measures the community is seeking.
“The purpose of the scorecard is to establish what the regional priorities are and to align regional investment and regional resources to those priorities,” Briggs said.
Briggs said the project was not just focused on Federal Government Indigenous funding but all public and private investment in the region.
“We’re talking about the way the region drives its prosperity. We’re moving from measuring our deficits into measurements around investment, productivity and prosperity,” he said.
“We think that move will also inform the way in which we address Aboriginal health services, legal services, child care, and housing and whether the resources that we’re investing in terms of people and dollars are giving us the returns that we want.”
Briggs said a 2009 Access Economics assessment of Shepparton that was commissioned by the Kaiela Institute discovered that if Indigenous economic parity with non-Indigenous people was achieved, productivity of the town would increase by $61 million.
That could be a powerful motivator for non-Indigenous people in the region, he said:
If there’s nothing else driving non-Indigenous people to look in our direction and to seek to be a part of the answers to the challenges, there’s actually some cash in it.”
You’ll sell more cars, you’ll sell more houses, you’ll sell more pizzas. And that productivity assessment isn’t across Yorta Yorta country, it’s just Shepparton itself.”
Briggs said that data had stimulated the business sector and local government to engage more enthusiastically with the Algabonyah Community Cabinet.
“Our region has a GDP of about $8 billion and integrating Indigenous prosperity measures into regional planning should reflect both our contribution to that GDP, as well as what we receive from it,” he said.
Raelene Nixon, a community engagement officer with the Algabonya Data Unit, told the symposium the Yorta Yorta community began pursuing data sovereignty as far back as 1988 as a way to disentangle itself from pervasive welfare dependent structures.
It became involved in data processes again in 2006 amid concerns the Australian Bureau of Statistics had under-counted the region’s Aboriginal people for that year’s national census.
Working with the University of Melbourne’s School of Rural Health, the community employed 12 local Aboriginal members to carry out new research, which found that the ABS initial count fell 30 per cent short of the region’s actual Aboriginal population.
Again in 2009 the Algabonyah Community Cabinet analysed local data sets to ask what worked in Closing the Gap in Shepparton and the Murray Goulburn region.
Workshops were held involving Aboriginal community members, representatives from all levels of government, non-government organisations, academics and members of the non-Indigenous local community, Nixon said.
“We identified data needs for our community, identified the gaps, and with that information started to ask what community data governance structure would look like. At the time 98 per cent of our community were saying that it was important that we have a regional data governance body, though were split on what that might look like,” she said.
The consultations finally led to the creation of the Algabonyah Data Unit.
Its role is to resource the Yorta Yorta community with knowledge in a sophisticated way, and to protect local Aboriginal people from unethical research, said Karyn Ferguson, also a community engagement officer with the unit.
It will also assist in the sustainability of Yorta Yorta culture and identity, and ensure that the local voice is injected into research in all its stages.
“We want to measure the things that are important to us, to identify what our priorities are. We want to measure the resource allocation and investment into our region, IAS (Indigenous Advancement Scheme) funding for example, and also what the state government resourcing is around infrastructure, like building new hospitals.”
Ferguson said some of early benefits coming from the work of the unit is that the data now reflects community boundaries and imposes “an Aboriginal community lens”.
“So, we’re talking about Yorta Yorta people on Yorta Yorta country, as opposed to local government boundaries,” she said.
“Also, while we do have the quantitative data and access to those data sets, we’ll provide the Aboriginal community lens that goes over the interpretation and analysis to ensure that our voice is across data and research at all times.”
Yawuru Knowledge and Wellbeing: “I designed it”
The symposium also heard about the Yawuru Knowledge and Wellbeing Project from the Kimberley region of Western Australia, another initiative to emerge from cultural flaws in ABS national census data.
Eunice Yu of the Kimberley Institute, which set up the project, said a number of accountability issues emerged in 2010 for the local Yawuru people over funding for an Indigenous language agreement signed with the Western Australian Government and the Shire of Broome.
“We needed to work out where to get appropriate data from in regard to how many Yawuru people were out there. The Census data didn’t break down into local language groups,” she said.
Three months out from the 2011 Census, Yu was employed to run a specific Yawuru demographic survey, which she says finally yielded accurate numbers about both the number of Yawuru people and other Aboriginal people living in the Broome region.
“We needed to establish a baseline of information in relation to what Native Title was going to bring to us, and what benefits the Yawuru people would be able to demonstrate as a result of the investment and change in the landscape that we were about to embark on,” she said.
“Further to that we wanted to show that what was important to Yawuru people would actually be able to be demonstrated across not only our community but across the nation.”
Like the Algabonyah community-led data initiative, Yawuru people were employed as the research team. The research process started with interviewing Elders to identify potential data indicators that were important to them.
As over 100 indicators were developed, the project began to evolve into what might represent wellbeing for Yawuru and, in 2015, the Yawuru wellbeing survey was conducted.
Project collaborator Mandy Yap, a research fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University who works in partnership with the Yawuru community in Broome, said she knew the research had integrity when she watched a Yawuru reference committee member participate in the survey.
“He was answering the questions with his wife, and because it is quite a long survey – we have a hundred questions in there – it takes about an hour and a bit. And he did it in half an hour because he wanted a race between the husband and wife.
“And the wife said, ‘Well how did you do it so quickly? It took me an hour and a half!’ And he said, ‘Well it is because I have designed the survey. I designed it, so I knew what I was going to say.’ From my perspective as a researcher, sitting there and hearing that from him, that was the tick I needed to know that the research reflected his values and what his thoughts were.”
Ngemba Data Research Hub: “when people don’t have a voice, they grieve”
For Jason Ford, a Ngemba man and cultural consultant with Dhirrangggal Solutions, the team managing the Ngemba Data Research Hub project in central New South Wales, Indigenous data sovereignty goes hand in hand with nation building.
Having worked in the past with the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and as an Aboriginal Liaison Officer in bio-security, Ford said he realised the significance of data after hearing colleagues talk about collecting information on threatened animal groups, such as koalas.
“I was really interested because they were talking about collecting this data so that this species could coexist with the movement of contemporary Australia,” he said.
“I started thinking about my own people, the Ngemba people, and I said, well they can collect information about the koala on where he is, what his habitat is, population demographics. Yet for my Ngemba people, I couldn’t find any information about my mob.”
Ford said the project was driven by community concerns about significant Ngemba cultural erasure as a result of the data collection and governance by non-Indigenous institutions such as the ABS, and state, federal and local government bodies, but also Indigenous organisations such as the NSW Aboriginal Land Council, the Native Title Services Corporation and even the region’s own Indigenous Murdi Paaki Regional Assembly.
There is no quality assurance to current models of governance that control Ngemba data, Ford said. As a result, Ngemba nation boundaries began disappearing off of new maps of traditional nation boundaries in the region.
Ford said even the Ngemba name was often not appropriately attributed to the nation’s significant cultural sites, such as the local heritage fish traps.
“There’s been no consultation with the Ngemba Elders and they’re really concerned with this type of behaviour, about having no jurisdiction around data, and how things appear to be headed, without the Ngemba having a voice,” he said.
“When people don’t have a voice they grieve, they grieve.
“And it’s very concerning when you see our people, when they grieve, they start to do things which contribute to poor health, because they’re not being listened to.”
See links to other community data initiatives:
Wadeye Community Archive Project http://networkedsociety.unimelb.edu.au/research/projects/ibes/wadeye-iptv
Queensland National Empowerment Project https://www.qmhc.qld.gov.au/awareness-promotion/aboriginal-torres-strait-islander-wellbeing-initiatives/national-empowerment-project
You can access a free download of Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda, edited by symposium keynote speaker Professor Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor, Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at The Australian National University. Many of the symposium presenters have also contributed articles to the publication.
You can also view a selection of tweets from the symposium at the @WePublicHealth archive: Week Oct 7
The symposium was convened by: Professor Marcia Langton, Associate Provost, Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies, University of Melbourne; Professor Shaun Ewen, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous), Director, Melbourne Poche Centre of Indigenous Health, University of Melbourne; Professor Janet McCalman and Dr Kristen Smith, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health; Dr Nikki Moodie, Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education; and Dr Len Smith, Australian National University.
Jack Latimore writes for Koori Mail and Guardian Australia. He is the daily editor of IndigenousX. His work has previously appeared in Overland, Inside Story, Crikey, NITV, SBS, & the ABC.