The voice of Indigenous data

Beyond the markers of disadvantage

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  • Published 20180807
  • ISBN: 9781925603316
  • Extent: 264pp
  • Paperback (234 x 153mm), eBook

THE ULURU STATEMENT from the Heart is essentially the same missive as sent by Tasmanians Walter and Mary Anne Arthur to Queen Victoria in 1846 – which eventually resulted in the removal of Henry Jeanneret as Commandant of Flinders Island – and every heartfelt petition since, most of which have not been so successful, at least in the short-term.

One hundred and seventy-two years later, the Uluru Statement pronounces our unbroken sovereignty as the Indigenous peoples of this continent even as it articulates our ongoing sense of powerlessness at the embedded inequality of our peoples. The Statement, like the many before it, also proposes a way forward for bettering that inequity, starting with a fair, just and truthful relationship and a voice in the political and social decision-making that impacts upon us.

The Uluru Statement aspirations require data. But data are not just numbers. What are currently construed as Indigenous data do not, and will never, meet the data requirements of negotiating a fair and truthful relationship or informing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voice. Generating data that do meet these criteria requires a paradigm shift in Indigenous statistics production from data dependence to data independence. Indigenous peoples need to be setting the data agenda rather than just being the subjects of data, as Desi Rodriguez-Lonebear argued in Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Toward An Agenda (ANU Press, 2016).

The Indigenous data environment is an enigma that obstructs rather than assists Indigenous goals: it focuses on the negative, is not readily accessible and is not designed to build a sustainable future. But there is a way to redress this unviable situation; by establishing an Indigenous data voice expressed as a set of protocols, governing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data processes and practices that would give us ownership and control over the sort of data that is collected and its use.

The ongoing failure of much Indigenous policy means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, as ever, must take matters into their own hands. At a symposium in October 2017 at the University of Melbourne, I was privileged to hear people from Bourke, Broome, Brewarrina, Wadeye, Kuranda and Cherbourg detail an array of extraordinary programs and projects developed to directly meet the unmet needs and ambitions of the people of those communities. All community speakers raised a common frustration at the lack of necessary data: data for planning; data to get the project right; data for supporting evidence; data for program implementation; data to evaluate and much more. Many, lamenting that this lack diminished their developmental capacity, resorted to collecting their own, stretching their limited resources and skill sets even further.

They couldn’t access the necessary data because, for the most part, it does not exist. This lack of information is one half of the Indigenous data paradox: we have both too much and too little data. On the ‘too much’ side is the huge pool of official statistics and administrative data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Official data mostly come from the Census of Population and Housing, the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS) and the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Survey, all collected and held by the Australian Bureau of Statistics and the Longitudinal Study of Indigenous Children (LSIC), delivered through the Department of Social Services. The other major source, administrative data, are generated and held by government entities and include hospital data, health-centre data, schools data, justice-system data, Centrelink and other welfare-agency data. The list goes on. Apart from the few dedicated collections, most Indigenous data are filtered from mainstream collections via an Indigenous identity question.

Not that it matters much. With the exception of the LSIC, which is unique in the Australian landscape in being overseen by a primarily Indigenous Steering Committee, these data are of limited use. Whether from Indigenous-specific or mainstream origins, the result is the same: a relentless descriptive tide of the various dire socio-economic and health inequalities. It can be summarised as what I have called ‘5D Data’: data that focus on Difference, Disparity, Disadvantage, Dysfunction and Deprivation. There is no shortage of these type of statistics.

If, however, you seek information outside this model you meet a data desert. There are no data that engage more than cursorily with our lifeworlds – that is, the embodied experience of the social, political, historical and cultural realities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s lives as Indigenous people. Nor do the data address our development needs. The little data available tend to be not amenable or not available to us. They are either locked behind data walls such as with NATSISS data at the Australian Bureau of Statistics, or they are in aggregate format only at national or state level. Yet Australia is now a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which makes clear in Articles 3, 23, 32 and 118 our right to data and development self-determination.

THE INDIGENOUS DATA paradox means that there is an enormous body of data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people but almost no data for or by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. The mismatch maps across five categories of data failure, which I have labelled BADDR: Blaming, Aggregate, Decontexualised, Deficit and Restricted. On the ‘too much’ data side we have data that: invariably contrast Indigenous and non-Indigenous, rating and blaming the problematic Indigene against the ‘normal’ Australian; are almost always aggregated at the national or state level, implying cultural and geographic homogeneity; are simplistic and decontextualised, focusing on individuals and families outside their context; are designed to capture deficits and service government priorities; and restricted and only available to government agencies.

On the ‘data we need’ side Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples require data that: are meaningful and useful, informing a comprehensive, nuanced narrative of who we are as peoples, of our culture, our communities, our resilience, goals and successes; recognise cultural and geographical diversity and can provide evidence for community-level planning and service delivery; can be contextualised to include the wider social structural complexities in which Indigenous disadvantage occurs; measure priorities and agendas, not just problems; and to be accessible and useable.

POPULATION STATISTICS ARE the evidence base for the nation state with the social, cultural and economic phenomena chosen for inclusion reflecting political priorities and norms. In doing so, they reflect particular images back to a society of itself. In the portrait of Australia created by current Indigenous data, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are missing – except as a problem. And this is how most non-Indigenous people, including the political class and policy-makers, know us. More injuriously, this depiction informs our understanding of ourselves. Yet, official statistical agencies have an obstinate blind spot in relation to Indigenous data. The data are just the data, they intone, arguing that they are immutable and indisputable. No, they are not. The statistics that perpetually describe ‘the problem’ are themselves part of the problem, reproducing on a seemingly endless repeat the trope of Indigenous deficit.

The harm wrought by the dominant 5D paradigm of Indigenous data is exacerbated by the seeming objective reality of numeric data. But statistics are not neutral. They are human artefacts whose numbers, and the findings they produce, directly echo the questions asked, why they are asked, how they are asked and who is doing the asking. If the priority is Indigenous problems, then data interpretation will inevitably be framed in terms of Indigenous deficit. In a perpetual cycle, deficit findings stimulate collection of even more deficit data. And repeat.

The growing imperative for data linkage magnifies this deficit cycle. Linking multiple 5D data sets (health, schooling, justice system, welfare) will give you a bigger ball of data, but not necessarily a more informative one. More likely, all you will have is a very long, thin string of 5D data, where only deficit-framed explanators can emerge, no matter how sophisticated the linking or the analytical techniques. Reworking the old adage: Indigenous problems in, the problematic Indigene out.

The individualised focus of 5D data on the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander person or family is also problematic. These are decontextualised data, out of their cultural, social and situational milieu. Individualised data fit neatly into established deficit models, but make no policy sense. Because what is measured shapes policy, and if those measures are insufficient then so will be the resultant policies. For example, what is the policy point of collecting data on Aboriginal children’s school attendance if data are not also collected on the school and its resources; how well the school, the school environment and the teachers relate and support the needs of Aboriginal children and their families; the efficacy of policies impacting on that child’s schooling experience? How useful are individualised data in the absence of data on the social and cultural circumstances of that child and family’s community and the wider social-cultural environment in which they live? The answer is simple: ‘Not very.’

THE INDIGENOUS DATA paradox is a product of the Indigenous-free zone that is the official statistics holders, including the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In 2004, preparing for a United Nations workshop on Indigenous data, and again in 2015 preparing for another event, I asked for the number of Indigenous staff in the ABS Indigenous statistics area. The answer, both times, was none. Just as we are alienated from the political processes that determine our life circumstances, so we are alienated from the collection and application of data that ‘evidence’ those processes. Yes, statistical-agency policy increasingly references Indigenous data participation, but this is rhetoric, not reality. They know it and we know it. Where engagement exists at all it is corralled into advisory formats that meet infrequently, are without binding power and can be summarily dismissed. And it shows.

Data are resources that have tangible value to non-Indigenous and Indigenous people alike. But while we have given our data, or had it collected despite us, we have rarely drawn value from our own data. Where data resources have been deployed on our behalf, it is as a benefit defined by others and meted out according to non-Indigenous values, belief systems and largely non-Indigenous whim. Indigenous data as an informing resource has also always been one-way traffic. The capacity for a two-way data exchange, in which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people also inform government of our perspectives and views on services, programs and political decisions, remains untapped.

Yet the need for data that have tangible value for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is overwhelming. As detailed by Tahu Kukutai and John Taylor in Indigenous Data Sovereignty, Indigenous-aligned development data remain an unmet prerequisite for delivery of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The urgent need for Indigenous leadership and governance around the Indigenous data requisite for implementation of the Declaration is a current focus of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, as Professor Megan Davis, who is a member of the Forum has written. So, how do we move from too much of the wrong data to an Indigenous data landscape that fulfils both the obligations that come with signing the Declaration, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander needs? The answer is a shift from the BADDR data paradigm to an Indigenous data sovereignty paradigm.

INDIGENOUS DATA SOVEREIGNTY, as a concept, is linked into the rising global recognition of the connection between Indigenous peoples’ development agendas and data as an Indigenous resource. Indigenous data sovereignty can be summarised as the right to determine the means of collection, access, analysis, interpretation, management, dissemination and reuse of data pertaining to the Indigenous peoples from whom they have been derived, or to whom they relate. Indigenous data sovereignty rejects the discourse and practices of Indigenous data business-as-usual and instead centres Indigenous collective rights in relation to data about our peoples, territories, lifeways and natural resources.

Indigenous data sovereignty, as data practice, is informed by the pioneering work of Canadian First Nations. In 1995, tired of non-Indigenous data users assuming the mantle of unbiased experts to speak with authority about First Nations realities, data sovereignty was demanded as a prerequisite for a government health survey on First Nations reservations. A new model was developed providing First Nations collective and broad-based control of their own data. This model became known OCAP, with the acronym trademarked to prevent its use except by First Nations. In this acronym the O is Ownership, C is the Control First Nations hold on how the data are collected, used and disclosed, A is Access, where First Nations have access to any data about them and P is Possession where all First Nations data fall within First Nations jurisdiction. OCAP is recognised by Statistics Canada, which has modified its practises as a result.

Indigenous data sovereignty, as operationalised, is Indigenous data governance, or alternatively an Indigenous data voice, that asserts Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander interests in relation to data. To be effective, the Indigenous data voice needs to achieve two things: inform the when, how and why our data is gathered, analysed, accessed and used; and ensure that Indigenous data reflects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander priorities, values, culture, lifeworlds and diversity. The relationship between an Indigenous data voice and official statistical/administrative agencies requires formalisation. What is needed is an agreement on a set of Indigenous data protocols, operating at the community, state and national level that prescribe the parameters on how Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data governance is actualised. The nature and structure of these protocols would be the product of collaborative development by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, peak organisations and academics, among others, in consultation with statistical agencies.

The following set of data governance principles are offered as a foundation to inform discussions. These principles are that data collection and collections about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, territories, lifeways and natural resources will prioritise Indigenous data needs, protect Indigenous data integrity and support Indigenous leadership in data decision-making; will be accountable to Indigenous people/nations on decisions around data collection and use; and recognise Indigenous interests, including collective interests, in relation to data.

AUSTRALIA IS NOT alone in either its UN Declaration data responsibilities or dominant BADDR data paradigm. Other former British-colonial nations exhibit the same contradictory pattern. But these other nations are all already making concrete progress in embedding Indigenous data governance protocols within their official statistical agency data practices. In Aotearoa-New Zealand the Te Mana Raraunga: Māori Data Sovereignty Network is actively partnering with Statistics New Zealand to rewrite Māori data frameworks. In the United States, the US Indigenous Data Sovereignty Network is working with tribal nations to establish a set of Indigenous data governance protocols to support tribal data sovereignty. In Canada, the First Nations Information Governance Centre, alongside other groups such as the British Columbia First Nations’ Data Governance Initiative, are broadening the scope of OCAP, widening its remit to include governance protocols around First Nations data needs. Everywhere but Australia it seems that Indigenous data governance is an idea whose time has come.

The data are not the data. Indigenous data are an essential resource for the realisation of the vision articulated in the Uluru Statement from the Heart. But as in the lack of a voice in the decisions that affect us, our voice is also peripheral to the channels of power through which Indigenous data decisions are made. The result is the Indigenous data paradox: lots of data about us that are not useful to us (or anybody else), and little or no data for us or by us. A change in the paradigm of Indigenous data is required with an Indigenous data voice a prerequisite to reshaping practices to allow Indigenous data to be a resource for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’ development agendas.


British Columbia First Nations’ Data Governance Initiative (2018) Home

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About the author

Maggie Walter

Dr Maggie Walter is Palawa and professor of sociology and pro vice-chancellor (Aboriginal research and leadership) at the University of Tasmania. She has an...

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