Indigenous people’s data, information and knowledge about Country are key to our management, care and stewardship of Country. It also forms part of the environmental data and information needed to understand, inform and contribute to our collective management of the environment, reporting on its state, and associated policy-making, implementation and evaluation.

However, various forces or drivers associated with data, information and knowledge are powerful pressures relevant to Indigenous people and their aspirations and expectations. These information pressures can be social (e.g. governance, policy, open data agenda), cultural (e.g. world views, norms), technical (e.g. digital infrastructures or platforms) and socio-technical (e.g. data standards, data gaps).

The communique from the Indigenous Data Sovereignty Summit 2018 by the Maiam nayri Wingara Indigenous Data Sovereignty Collective (IDSC) and the Australian Indigenous Governance Institute (AIGI) outlines some of the key issues (Maiam nayri Wingara IDSC & AIGI 2018):

Data is a cultural, strategic, and economic asset for Indigenous peoples. Indigenous Australians have always been active in what is now known as ‘data’. Yet in modern times we have been isolated from the language, control and production of data at community, state and national levels. This has resulted in data that are overly focused on Indigenous peoples as the problem. Existing data and data infrastructure does not recognise or privilege our knowledges and worldviews nor meet our current and future needs.

Indigenous data are data, information or knowledge that relate to or impact the lives of Indigenous people at the individual or collective level (Walter & Russo Carroll 2021). This means that Indigenous data are not restricted to data about Indigenous people collected through administrative processes such as censuses, or health, social or commercial information. Indigenous data are also information about the environment, land, skies and resources, and include tangible and intangible cultural information (e.g. oral histories, cultural sites and stories) (Carroll et al. 2020).

Data governance remains largely out of the hands of Indigenous people (Kukutai & Taylor 2016b). Indigenous data remain predominantly controlled by non-Indigenous governments, institutes, agencies and organisations. Foundational to addressing information pressures is Indigenous data sovereignty, Indigenous data governance – both ‘governance of data’ and ‘data for governance’ – and the associated Indigenous data leadership (see Figure 5, case study: Indigenous data sovereignty in a natural resource management context and Indigenous data management).

Figure 5 Indigenous data sovereignty enacted through Indigenous data governance

Indigenous data sovereignty

Indigenous data sovereignty is the right of Indigenous people to control the collection, access, analysis, interpretation, management, dissemination and reuse of Indigenous data (Kukutai & Taylor 2016b, Snipp 2016). In Australia, Maiam nayri Wingara IDSC & AIGI (n.d.) have stated that the key principles of Indigenous data sovereignty are that Indigenous people have the right to:

  • Exercise control of the data ecosystem including creation, development, stewardship, analysis, dissemination and infrastructure.
  • Data that is contextual and disaggregated (available and accessible at individual, community and First Nations levels).
  • Data that is relevant and empowers sustainable self-determination and effective self-governance.
  • Data structures that are accountable to Indigenous peoples and First Nations.
  • Data that is protective and respects our individual and collective interests.

The Indigenous data sovereignty agenda is being increasingly recognised, with strong Australian and international Indigenous leadership in its design and promulgation, including through the Global Indigenous Data Alliance (GIDA 2021b). Key principles are also finding their way into Indigenous, government and research organisational strategies, commitments and policies. Examples include:

  • Close the Gap reports by the Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee (Lowitja Institute 2021)
  • the Victorian Traditional Owner native food and botanicals strategy (FVTOC 2021)
  • National Native Title Council (NNTC 2021)
  • AbSec – NSW Child, Family and Community Peak Aboriginal Corporation (AbSec 2020)
  • the National Environmental Science Program (NESP 2021)
  • Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet (AIHIN 2020)
  • the AIATSIS code of ethics for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research (AIATSIS 2020a)
  • the Indigenous evaluation strategy (PC 2020)
  • the Northern Territory Primary Health Network Reconciliation Action Plan (NTPHN 2020).

However, there are also key Australian government data and digital strategies and structures where Indigenous interests, perspectives and governance are absent, inadequate or without substance (Kaiela Institute 2019, IDN 2020, NACCHO 2020b, Walter et al. 2020, Griffiths et al. 2021), especially with respect to Indigenous data in a public sector data context. The Data Availability and Transparency Bill (ONDC 2020), managed by the Office of the National Data Commissioner, is one such example. There have been calls for Indigenous inclusion in at least the National Data Advisory Council, and also a dedicated Indigenous data committee. Also important will be meaningful recognition throughout key themes and actions within the proposed Australian Data Strategy.

Despite the movement towards greater recognition of Indigenous data sovereignty, there are warnings: ‘Given the stark power asymmetries between nation states, researchers, other mainstream institutions and Indigenous Peoples, how do we prevent Indigenous data sovereignty from being co-opted and selectively appropriated into ‘policy’ that may have unintended consequences?’ (Walter & Russo Carroll 2021).

Gaps also still exist in the:

  • adoption of Indigenous data sovereignty and governance across institutions that are custodians of Indigenous data
  • availability of tools and infrastructures to support the management and use of Indigenous data
  • capacity of communities and organisations and their people (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) to implement Indigenous data sovereignty and governance
  • coordination of strategies and specific resourcing to ensure shared goals and integrated responses from government.

In addition, both the ‘open data’ and ‘big data’ agendas are affecting Indigenous data sovereignty. It has been pointed out that ‘more open data or bigger data are not necessarily better data’ (Walter & Russo Carroll 2021). Some of the tensions between Indigenous interests and open data exist around the preference for ‘open by default’ (Australian Government public data policy) (DPMC 2015) and how this can ‘bypass entirely the rights of Indigenous peoples to decide what, if any, of their data should be shared, let alone issues of ownership’ and risks around data biases, and how Indigenous data may be used and misinterpreted (Rainie et al. 2019, Walter et al. 2020). At the same time, the application of Indigenous data sovereignty and governance across institutions and infrastructures, with associated capacity development, will ensure the benefits envisaged by open data (e.g. innovation, productivity, transparency, inclusive development) will actually benefit Indigenous people.

Case Study Indigenous data sovereignty in a natural resource management context

Authors: Sam Provost (Yuin) and Cassandra Price (Muruwari), Maiam nayri Wingara Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Data Sovereignty Collective

The collecting and collating of Indigenous environmental data are relatively new initiatives in Australia. Natural resource management is, and has since colonisation, been the responsibility of the Australian and state governments, and is supported through legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (Cth). Often, while the data collected to support these processes include information about Indigenous flora, fauna and landscapes, Indigenous peoples have limited or no access to, or control over, these data. Moreover, where Indigenous environmental data are available, they are often outdated or insufficient for meeting community needs (Hill et al. 2013).

An example of Indigenous exclusion is found in lutruwita/Tasmania in the management of the short-tailed shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris; yolla in Aboriginal language) whose chicks are subject to annual commercial and recreational harvesting (mutton birding). Harvesting mutton birds is a traditional Palawa practice and Palawa have historically been involved in the mutton bird industry. In contemporary times, Palawa people operate the commercial harvest and this activity is of high social, cultural and economic importance to the Aboriginal community throughout Tasmania (Skira 1990, Skira et al. 1996). Yet the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industry, Parks, Water and the Environment (DPIPWE) manage the annual harvest. DPIPWE collects harvest data (the number of chicks harvested annually) from the commercial and recreational harvest to inform management and policy decisions. And while external institutions and organisations can apply to access the data by establishing a data agreement, all these processes proceed without any oversight from the Tasmanian Aboriginal community.

Embedding Indigenous data governance in Palawa mutton birding would ensure the protection of Palawa knowledges while benefitting the industry as a whole. Indigenous data governance is defined as Indigenous peoples’ ‘power and authority over the design, ownership, access to and use of data’ (Lovett et al. 2019). In the case of the Palawa mutton bird harvest, implementing Indigenous data governance processes would allow for program design, data capture, monitoring and analysis that aligns with Palawa obligations to care for Country in a sustainable way. The development of data governance structures that foreground Palawa sovereignty could ensure that data collected are contextual and relevant, allowing the data to highlight the importance of natural resource management for Palawa futurity.

Data for governance

Professor Maggie Walter (Palawa woman, Distinguished Professor, Sociology, University of Tasmania) has highlighted a significant current and historical information pressure – namely how Indigenous data and information are and have been interpreted and used, and that this is not neutral in its impact (Walter & Russo Carroll 2021):

Across Anglo-colonised nation states, official policy, and the administratively devised strategic actions and programs that flow from that policy, are the predominant ways governments engage with their internal Indigenous peoples, nations and populations … All provide a remarkably similar statistical narrative of Indigenous overrepresentation across the same development indicators of socio-economic, health, education and social disadvantage … These numbers and the many other statistics detailing Indigenous societal positioning are not disputed. We know their reality too well. But accepting numerical reality is not the same as accepting the validity of the picture they represent or the policy settings that invariably emerge from these statistics.

These pervasive data are not neutral entities. Statistics are human artifacts and in colonising nation states such numbers applied to Indigenous Peoples have a raced reality (Walter 2010; Walter and Anderson 2013). Their reality emerges not from the mathematically supported analytical techniques they allow but via the social, racial and cultural standpoint of their creators. Data do not make themselves. Data are created and shaped by the assumptive determinations of their makers to collect some data and not others, to interrogate some objects over others and to investigate some variable relationships over others …

For Indigenous peoples, the statistics and data themselves per se, are not the problem. From a policy perspective, the far more critical question is how are such numbers deployed and what and whose purposes do they, and their attendant narratives, serve (Walter 2016, 2018)?

Walter et al. (2020) demonstrate the mismatch between BADDR (blaming, aggregate, decontextualised, deficit and restricted) data and actual Indigenous data needs (Table 4).

Table 4 Indigenous data needs compared with BADDR data

Dominant BADDR data

Indigenous data needs

Blaming data: Too much data contrasts Indigenous and non-Indigenous data, rating the problematic Indigene against the normed Australian as the ubiquitous pejorative standard

Lifeworld data: We need data to inform a comprehensive, nuanced narrative of who we are as peoples, of our culture, our communities, of our resilience, our goals and our successes

Aggregate data: Too much data are aggregated at the national and/or state level, implying Indigenous cultural and geographical homogeneity

Disaggregated data: We need data that recognise our cultural and geographical diversity and can provide evidence for community-level planning and service delivery

Decontextualised data: Too much data are simplistic and decontextualised, focusing on individuals and families outside of their social/cultural context

Contextualised data: We need data that are inclusive of the wider social structural context/complexities in which Indigenous disadvantage occurs

Deficit, government priority data: Too much (way too much) 5D data: These data focus on disadvantage, disparity, dysfunction, difference, deficit (Walter 2016) collected to serve government priorities

Indigenous priority data: We need data that measure not just our problems but data that address our priorities and agenda

Restricted access data: Too much data are barricaded away by official statistical agencies and institutions

Available amenable data: We need data that are accessible and amenable to our requirements

BADDR = blaming, aggregate, decontextualised, deficit and restricted

Source: Reproduced from Table 1 in Walter et al. (2020)

To address this information pressure of BADDR data, data for governance is about Indigenous people developing and defining their own understanding and vision of relevant and appropriate criteria and indicators (Taylor 2008) for assessment. When government frameworks for collecting data and information and making assessments at the project or programmatic level are imposed (e.g. monitoring, evaluation, reporting and improvement), they can drive a limited narrative around simple criteria and indicators for effectiveness of Indigenous land and sea management, for instance. Some data may address criteria and indicators such as level of funding, employment numbers or career development of rangers, but miss the range of other cultural, social, wellbeing and other co-benefit indicators important to Indigenous people (Austin et al. 2018, Pert et al. 2020), or be too generic to represent the diversity of Indigenous circumstances across Australia.

In the data for governance field, we need the data for nation rebuilding, to determine our own policy and program needs and to evaluate their efficacy. We need to ensure data indicators measure what is important and meaningful for the Indigenous people to whom those data relate. To achieve these aims, Indigenous peoples need to be able to develop our own technical and human resource data capacities, policies and practices. (Walter & Russo Carroll 2021)

Alternatives to BADDR data do exist – for example, Yolŋu rangers and the Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation have determined their own criteria for monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of their work at the local level. They use these criteria to inform their narrative, and to measure against indicators for their own program and vision for the ecologically and culturally sustainable management of the Dhimurru Indigenous Protected Area. The sets of criteria that the members of the Dhimurru knowledge community and Dhimurru rangers have identified are (see Table 3 in Ayre et al. 2021):

  • knowing and being known by Yolŋu Country – for example, knowing and taking responsibility for managing and caring for your wäŋa (Yolŋu Country and important places on Country)
  • mobilising the Dhimurru Vision Statement (e.g. remembering and honouring the words and intentions of the founders of Dhimurru as they are represented in the Dhimurru Vision Statement)
  • being ralpa (e.g. doing what has always been done to care for Yolŋu Country; learning, teaching, sharing and using Yolŋu knowledge of Country).

The outcomes for assessment within the 2021 state of the environment report and the indicators and trends that sit beside them are important. This is because they will inform and potentially set the future narrative of Indigenous priorities and needs with respect to ongoing reporting and management of the state of our environment. Indigenous leadership is essential in the choice of what is counted and assessed. For the first time, this report is including an Indigenous chapter, has embedded Indigenous co-authors of chapters and has included some Indigenous-led community consultation. This represents an initial step in supporting Indigenous data governance and providing a voice for Indigenous narratives in this context. It will be important to see how this involvement will empower Indigenous people to make decisions to support their communities in ways that meet their development needs and aspirations (see Enablers of caring for Country).

It is suggested that future state of the environment reporting develops and identifies through an Indigenous-led peer-review process and specific Indigenous data needs from an environment and/or Country data perspective. These data needs could be consistent with the framing within Table 4 for instance, and include:

  • lifeworld data that highlight a narrative or baseline or provenance of continuous and successful Indigenous management of Country
  • disaggregated data that show Country at the significant site, community and family level, as well as species of cultural significance (e.g. totems)
  • contextualised data that connect across cultural values and ways of knowing
  • Indigenous priority data that support Indigenous management of Country and address pressures on Country
  • available amenable data that are available and accessible across a range of joined up environmental, social, cultural and economic indicators.

Tension between Indigenous knowledge and digital data systems

Another key information pressure is associated with recognising and including Indigenous world views and ways of knowing in the context of data and the digital (ONDC 2020). The inclusion and use of Indigenous knowledge within an environmental reporting digital or database context (whether it be collecting, analysing, sharing or using data) affects that knowledge. There is a body of literature that describes the impact of converting knowledge into data in information systems. The literature also describes how this can strip away the contextual, detailed, dynamic and applied aspects of Indigenous knowledge, and diminish associated power, utility and protection for Indigenous knowledge (see, for example, Agrawal 2002, Nakata 2002, Christie 2015).

From an Indigenous perspective, data do not always have to be digital and data ‘storage’ can take many forms, including songlines, stories, art, language, ceremonies and cultural practices. There are protocols for the governance of culturally sensitive information or data – for example, sacred, secret, private or confidential material. These protocols will determine when, how and to whom information is made available. Data platforms that enable or reflect these access and permission protocols will be key to strong data governance. Dr Kathy (Gotha) Guthadjaka AM (Elder from Gawa, Elco Island, and Senior Research Fellow at Charles Darwin University) and colleagues have examined open and digital platforms and recommended centring Indigenous content and authors to claim platforms, and the restructure of systems so Indigenous authority is authentically represented (Funk & Guthadjaka 2020).

Some of these issues are beginning to be addressed through potential synergies at the ‘cultural interface’ (Nakata 2002), and use of Indigenous research methodologies such as co-design, co-development or co-production for both data collection or creation and digital information system design. An example of incorporating Indigenous knowledge into a data tool such as species distribution modelling is the work with the Martu people on the mankarr/greater bilby to inform management of this culturally significant species (Skroblin et al. 2021).