Indigenous data sovereignty and how Māori are leading the way

New Zealand’s Tikanga in Technology project is one of several efforts meant to create awareness and structure for others.

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There is plenty of discussion about individual data rights, with the government poised to bring in a consumer data right, but what about collective rights?

The idea that indigenous groups have collective identities that need to be recognised and catered to by organisations collecting, analysing and disseminating data is being explored by Māori academics throughout Aotearoa New Zealand, with their findings shared globally.

Tikanga in Technology project

Waikato University Associate Professor Maui Hudson is leading a four-year project, ‘Tikanga in Technology: Indigenous approaches to transforming data ecosystems’, that has just received $6 million in funding from the government’s Endeavour Fund. The country’s largest contestable fund, it was set up in 2016 with the purpose of investing in leading-edge research projects that will improve New Zealanders’ lives.

The project’s focus is on how tikanga Māori (customary protocols) and Mātauranga Māori (indigenous knowledge) inform “the construction of digital identities and relational responsibilities to data.  … The world is undergoing disruptive change as rapid advances in data linkage and powerful digital technologies converge. For Indigenous peoples, these innovations are a double-edged sword, creating vast potential for improved well-being as well as major risks of group exploitation and harm. The current narrow focus on individual data rights and protection is failing us. We need a profoundly different approach—one that recognises collective identities and allows data to be understood through a wider set of ontological realities.”

A major part of the project is to look at tools, processes and solutions that can help IT workers understand and incorporate indigenous perspectives when working on data sets. This includes storage and processing data as well as the creation of algorithms that have the potential for bias.

“I think the challenge at one level is trying to signal that developers need to be more thoughtful about what they create,” Hudson says. “What we’d like to do is try and get down a little bit more into the technical aspects of that, and what are the different sorts of ways where we could make changes. They might be technical solutions, they might be ethical solutions, they might different sorts of solutions. At least giving the community of developers some tools to support them to either think their way through it, or code their way through it.”

Hudson intends for Tikanga in Technology to link in with data science projects at Waikato University as well as other universities throughout the country.

Government, academic, business and iwi understanding of data sovereignty

Hudson notes several academic and government initiatives are exploring how to deal with data in a way that provides for more equitable outcomes for Māori.

“There are active conversations that are taking place between institutions themselves as they work together in different alliances. The government is thinking about it in relation to all the material which it collects from all its separate areas and how it makes that available. What sort of policies and procedures should be put in place in that space,” he says.

Hudson was instrumental in creating the framework Ngā Tikanga Paihere, which draws on ten tikanga (te ao Māori world concepts) and aligns with how Stats NZ manages safe access to integrated data. “It’s a framework about how we can include Māori more consciously in the processes and decisions about how that data gets used,” he says.

Discussions about Māori data sovereignty are occurring beyond central government, such as among some councils and district health boards. However, the private sector appears to be further behind. “I think there are some emerging thoughts in the business space about the need to be thinking about this. It hasn’t moved on in the same way as in government circles,” Hudson notes.

There is the concern that by opening data to all comers, those with technical capability can consolidate their power, such as the large global tech giants Google and Facebook. “That might be fine if there were ways that things could be shared equitably, but we can’t even get them to pay tax in our country, let along share it with different groups,” Hudson says.

Iwi (the largest Māori social units) on the other hand are becoming more aware of the importance of good data in decision making. “Being able to get access to the right sort of platforms and infrastructures and products is really important, and alongside that is being able to build capacity to use them and get the most value out of them. This is something every iwi is grappling with,” Hudson says.

Māori are leading the way globally

Indigenous data sovereignty is an area where this country can lead the way, as the Tikanga in Technology proposal makes clear: “Aotearoa New Zealand has a global advantage in Indigenous research and an enabling environment to optimise this edge to transform data ecosystems so that they are generative and beneficial for Indigenous peoples and their wider societies.”

Hudson notes that many of his academic colleagues have a long history of advocacy around the Treaty of Waitangi and “how that gets expressed across a variety of different domains. … You have Māori researchers like Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith who for many years have challenged the status quo and have been talking about issues of equity and the need to build Māori research capability for the last 30 years, and that sort of work is recognised internationally,” he says.

He also cites Waikato University Professor Tahu Kukutai as being influential in the evolving area of indigenous data rights. A founding member of the Māori Data Sovereignty Network Te Mana Raraunga and the Global Indigenous Data Alliance (GIDA), she is also co-editor of the book Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward an Agenda.

Hudson says they are closely aligned with colleagues working in the area of indigenous data rights globally. A recent GIDA project in which he was co-lead involved the creation of CARE principles to complement the FAIR principles (findable, accessible, interoperable, and reusable) for scientific data management and stewardship. The CARE principles are collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility, and ethics. These have since been translated into Spanish.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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