Indigenous Data Governance for the 21st Century

Justice and equity for Indigenous peoples will increasingly depend on the realization of Indigenous data sovereignty and governance.

In Australia, this has grown slowly and in a variety of ways, with community organizations, data scientists and researchers tackling issues in local contexts.

In 2016, Professor Tahu Kukutai and Emeritus Professor John Taylor of ANU Center for Indigenous Economic Policy Research asked, “What does data sovereignty mean to Indigenous peoples, and how is it used in their quest for self-determination?”.

These are just two of the questions addressed by 183 Indigenous data users, data scientists, researchers, and government and community representatives during the Roundtable on Indigenous Data Governance and Sovereignty by the Indigenous Data Network (IDN) to Narrm at the University of Melbourne.

The IDN was founded in 2018 with the goal of achieving better data outcomes for Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander peoples by supporting Indigenous data empowerment with a national approach.

The roundtable, convened by Professor Marcia Langton, Dr Kristen Smith, Dr Vanessa Russ and Levi-Craig Murray, and co-funded with the Australian Research Data Commonswas an important step in the IDN project – Improving Indigenous Research Capabilities: An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Research Data Commons.

Its goal is to build national Indigenous research capacity, framed by a set of agreed Indigenous governance principles that can leverage existing data assets and link them to new and existing data.


There are many design questions that require input from both Indigenous leaders in this field and data scientists and other researchers: Who owns the data? How is this data accessible for use? How should Indigenous data be collected, stored, accessed and reused?

Data relating to Indigenous peoples that has been collected over many decades and held by data custodians including government departments, universities, museums and libraries is of great concern to Indigenous peoples.

This data is critically important to how we shape our future.

The dilemma for indigenous peoples is that they cannot access data concerning them in most cases.

Data custodians do not share or observe data Indigenous Data Governance Principles. Even when data is shared with indigenous parties, such as community-controlled entities, a series of issues arise.

The IDN research team and partners are exploring these questions, and these insights are integral to achieving a fundamental goal of establishing a common space of Aboriginal and Strait Islander research data. Torres.

Across Australia, Indigenous research data formats vary – data is scattered, cataloging is inadequate or non-existent, there are many unidentified or siloed repositories and little knowledge of existing data.

And that must change.


A remarkable example of Indigenous Data Sovereignty and governance in practice is the ATSICHS Data Ecosystem – a sophisticated data management and analytics environment developed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service (ATSICHS).

The data ecosystem lays the technical foundation for the ATSICHS Brisbane Data Science roadmap co-designed with QUT Center for Data Science and eSearch crew.

A fundamental principle is that needs and security – as well as the ability of customers to manage their data ecosystems – must be at the center of the service. The roadmap empowered the community, enabling benchmarking reports, use of census data, and operational reporting.

It is designed to meet the needs of the community and represents the improvement of best practices in data literacy, by collecting community feedback through questionnaires, interviews and focus groups.

It has also begun to explore sophisticated approaches to online platforms that involve dynamic electronic consent processes that allow Indigenous peoples at any time to give consent, renew consent, and withdraw consent.

ATSICHS has completed its IT roadmap and is making progress on its data roadmap, integrating advanced data science and integrating data-driven decision making.

Data literacy in the Indigenous community and the importance for institutions to properly manage research data is a priority – moving from an extractive relationship to a partnership with local Indigenous peoples.

These tools and technologies must include both the FAIR and CARE principles applied to Indigenous governance of our common data for data matching, data cleansing for use, and storage requirements.

Indigenous data practitioners and their data science partners are keenly aware of the power of Indigenous data sovereignty and governance and the need to carefully design collection and storage systems – using them to empower indigenous peoples, not to marginalize them.

The General Data Protection Regulation in Europe has become the de facto global standard for data regulation – this has important implications for the Privacy Act 1988 in Australia. The jurisdictional limits of current data law do not meet European Union standards.

This state of affairs offers Aboriginal peoples an opportunity to make their voices heard in the impending legislative reform.


Censorship and authentication have implications for research rigor and benefits for Indigenous data users – misinformation about historical records can mislead people in identifying connections to country.

director of the Anthropology Museum at the University of Queensland, Michael Aird, corrects historical records and reconnects individuals with their family lines and ancestors by providing the stories that emerge from this painstaking research.

Michael showed how archives of historical material are particularly important for Indigenous peoples seeking to secure their property rights or reunite their families after generations of forced displacement of Indigenous children.

Thus, the ability of researchers to investigate these questions is a priority.

However, a perverse form of censorship has become the practice in these collecting institutions.

Despite the impossibility of identifying the community of origin for photographs of anonymous people, many institutions do not allow researchers to view these documents without “community permission”.

Without changes to these policies, the archives will remain closed to Indigenous families seeking to learn about their past.


So what data are we talking about and what are they for?

Many local indigenous groups want their data stored in their own country. This involves several considerations.

The first is choice – can and should users be able to remove your data, or do you want to keep the content locally, within the country.

Second, is there the right infrastructure to maintain these collections in the country? If yes, do you need to be in the country to access the data? What systems should we design to access sensitive data?

These challenges also imply the need to consider ways to approach capacity building in collections management. Understanding and accommodating the different choices will be key to the smooth operation of the network as a whole.


Across Australia, Indigenous communities are demanding access to data. The most urgent need is for data disaggregated by Indigenous status, including health, correctional data, education and development.

Indigenous community leaders need data for decision-making purposes to enable their organizations to pursue the highest priorities based on evidence.

A critical point that needs to be understood by government officials and data custodians is that, as Binarri-binyja yarawoo According to technical advisor Christine Deng, “access to data and shared decision-making are two sides of the same coin”.

A key step would be to initiate joint decision-making between government officials and community leaders by involving these voices in decisions about Commonwealth funding with the primary aim of establishing a common space of Aboriginal research data. and Torres Strait Islanders.

The research highlighted here was presented during a two-day roundtable held at the University, which allowed for dynamic, insightful and important discussions on the practical and technical application of Indigenous principles of governance and sovereignty of data. The work will be translated and applied to Indigenous research data tools and infrastructures.

Those presenting included:

Raymond BrunkerJarryd Aleckson and Dr Jonathan Leitch from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service.

Professor Peter Anderson, Professor Matt Bellgard, Professor Kerrie Mengerson, Professor David Lovell and Mrs. Becki Cook at WHAT.

Stephanie Von Gavel of CSIRO and Professor Rachel Ankeny from University of Adelaide.

Special Advisor to the IDN, Dr Kris Wilson from Sydney University of Technology.

Mr Michael Aird from University of Queensland.

Members of Maiam Nayri Wingara Collective.

Associate Professor Steve McEachern of the Australian Data Archive to Australian National University.

Christine Deng from Binarri Binyja Yarrawoo Empowered Communitiesspine for East Kimberley Autonomous Communities.

Gary Powell from Autonomous Communities National Team and Empowered Communities Secretariat Terres Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (NPY).

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