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Giving First Nations control over data

23 March 2023

News and media


Data is one of the pillars on which government is built and it has a deep and often unseen influence on the way governments deliver services and interact with citizens. 

First Nations have historically had no control over how data was collected from them, or how it was used. ANZSOG’s recent First Peoples to All Peoples conference included a session on Shared Access to Data and Information which focused on the importance of First Nations not only having access to data, but also being involved in the design of data collection projects. 

Panels featured a range of First Nations data experts from Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand who spoke of the need for a rethink in how governments approached data relating to First Nations, and how to give First Nations power and control over their own data. 

Romlie Mokak, the first Indigenous Commissioner at the Productivity Commission, said that issues around data were less around the technical issues and more about ‘who frames the questions and how’. He said that current systems measured First Nations in ways they did not want to be measured. 

“There are fundamental questions around how data is used to support and perpetuate the deficit discourse and problematise us as a people, and to continuously create programs that don’t meet our needs,” he said. 

“If we don’t get access to this data, and the use of this data to service our priorities, then we will continue to be at the mercy of the government to make decisions for us.” 

Kirikowhai Mikaere, Lead Technical Advisor National Iwi (Tribal) Chairs Forum – Data Leadership Group, said that the government in Aotearoa New Zealand had various different ways of defining the Māori population (ranging from estimated of 15-20% of the Aotearoa population) and Māori needed to raise awareness that this state-determined identity was different to self-determined identity.  

While iwi had their own databases, and elders checked genealogy, there were many Māori who were not registered which limited their engagement with society, and that iwi were working to get access to that information. 

Ms Mikaere told the audience that in Aotearoa New Zealand, data was being collected by a system that ‘ails, jails and fails us’ and was contributing to that failure. 

“I think we are all aware that ‘what you measure you manage’. A lot of the data that is taken from us in Aotearoa by government shows states of deprivation and desperation, so we have a lot of focus on managing those states. It really provides a misunderstanding of who we are and the contribution we make to our nation, for example, it doesn’t show the role of iwi as job creators.”  

“The lens that writes those questions – that collects, analyses and disseminates – has a bias. Your values create the lens that you see the world through, and Māori have a particular value set, so we deserve to have our lens put on that data,” she said.  

“We need to move away from the idea that we are data providers, and the best we can aspire to is to be data consumers. We can be data designers, and we need to redesign a system that lets us measure our aspirations and our contributions, so that is what we look to manage.”  

“There is a real power in using data the way we want to use it.” 

Data reform crucial for National Agreement on Closing the Gap

In Australia, control over data is one of the four Priority Reforms of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap, and speakers stressed its importance in supporting efforts to achieve the other Priority Reforms: building the Indigenous controlled sector, creating partnerships and shared decision-making, and transforming governments. 

Sharif Deen, Head of Secretariat NSW Coalition of Aboriginal Peak Organisations, said that data reform needed to happen in conjunction with the other three priority reforms, and that First Nations were frustrated that they were always presented with problems rather than solutions when they tried to get more control over data.  

“If we know that data systems are not set up to share data with us, then get to work fixing that,” he said. 

Professor Raymond Lovett, Director Mayi Kuwayu Study, Australian National University National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health, said that involving Aboriginal people in the design of data collection could lead to positive outcomes. 

He outlined a mental health project where researchers had designed questions to identify risk factors in Aboriginal people which were a direct product of settler-colonialism, including forced removal and ongoing racism. 

“It found that racism made a 50 per cent contribution to poor mental health amongst Aboriginal people, but that factors such as cultivating and maintaining a sense of belonging to tribe or community, and attachment and access to Country were protective factors.” 

Frances Foster-Thorpe, Chief Data Officer in the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, said that it was not just attitudes in government that prevented data-sharing, although they could be part of the problem, but systems as well. She said that a recent NSW government project on people with disability had taken over a year of work and 30 different documents to share non-identifying data between two departments. 

Professor Lovett responded to this by saying that it was impossible to separate systems and culture. 

Systems are designed by people, who have culture, and that culture influences the design of systems. Governments need to acknowledge that systems were designed by non-Indigenous people for administrative purposes,” he said. 

Mr Mokak said that these underpinned other aspects of the National Agreement on Closing the Gap and that questions about what indicators sat beneath targets, and whether they were the right ones, were relevant not just to data-design issues but important questions of public policy.   

“This work has to happen in all agencies, not just those dealing directly with First Nations policy. Organisations such as Treasury departments had huge resources and huge influence over policy. 

Ms Mikaere said that during COVID-19 barriers that had been stopping iwi accessing data from governments melted away.  

“During the pandemic those issues didn’t seem to exist, and we got access to data immediately, because governments couldn’t respond to our communities as fast as we could. There seems to be another ‘travelator’ for data sharing that exists in a crisis. Yes, the pandemic is a crisis, the cyclone is a crisis, but actually the state of our people as we are every day is also a crisis, so how do we get on that travelator?” 

ANZSOG’s First Peoples to All Peoples conference was held in Meanjin Brisbane from 1-3 March 2023 and featured over 20 First Nations speakers discussing the transformation in First Nations policy being driven by the Australia’s National Agreement on Closing the Gap commitments, particularly the four Priority Reforms, as well as the New Zealand Public Service Act 2020, which sets out the responsibility of the public service, particularly its leadership, in supporting the Crown’s relationship with Māori under the Treaty of Waitangi.