A recent Melbourne conference on the emerging Indigenous data sovereignty movement in Australia has heard that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander data may well be the next big “land grab”.

Participants heard that Indigenous data sovereignty may provide First Nations communities with valuable future resources to assist with overcoming inequality and disadvantage as data-sharing increases between big businesses, government agencies and academic institutions.

Held over two days in early October at the University of Melbourne’s Parkville campus, the conference featured a number of international keynote speakers as well as representatives from numerous community-driven Indigenous data projects from around Australia.

Keynote speakers Dr Tahu Kukutai and Indigenous statistics researcher Andrew Sporle — both founding members of the Aotearoa Indigenous data sovereignty network Te Mana Raraunga — informed participants that data could be considered everything from quantitative statistics to the geolocation of sacred and significant sites, archived video footage of elders, stories and songs, and hard artefacts such as cultural tools or clothing.

There is “a whole multitude of ways of thinking about data,” said Kukutai. The real challenge is to be able to capture, archive and govern data in a way that is meaningful and empowers our First Nations communities, she says.  

Conference convenor Professor Marcia Langton said data sovereignty meant Indigenous communities governing issues of “ownership, access, consent collection, analysis and reporting” in regards to data gathered by them, from them and for existing data that most affects them.

She said that Indigenous data custodianship and governance has the potential to address complex issues of disadvantage, something recognised by the Prime Minister in his 2017 Closing the Gap report.

“However, the lack of reliable and consistent disaggregated data for Indigenous Australians is striking, resulting in the paucity of evidence-based Indigenous policy-making,” she said.

Numbers gap: Commonwealth data bodies have failed Indigenous communities 

Fellow keynote speaker Dr Maggie Walter, pro vice-chancellor of Aboriginal research and leadership at the University of Tasmania, told participants the conference was important to develop an Indigenous data sovereignty network in Australia similar to the Te Mana Raraunga project.

“As Indigenous people we have long been the subject of data collection,” she said. “The intent in the way that those data have been gathered and analysed over the years had varied from the benign to the malignant, but what they all have in common is that they have all very rarely been collected by us or for us.”

For Walter, greater data governance and data custodianship by Indigenous communities is key to the movement.

She said that most data collection in Australia had been done by organisations like the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS), hospitals, the justice system, schools, federally funded government programs and, increasingly, the private sector.

“And data are not neutral statistics. They overtly display the cultural, social and political power imbalance between those collecting and analysing those data, and those of us who are their data subjects,” she said.

Several of the presentations on community-led data projects shared a common criticism: flaws in data collected and analysed by the ABS, specifically significant under-counting in past censuses. This was often the catalyst for the launch of community data projects, such as the Yorta Yorta nation’s new Algabonya Data Unit, which will release its inaugural report card on investment, productivity and prosperity in Victoria’s Goulburn Valley region later this year.

The unit’s community engagement officer Raelene Nixon said Algabonya had found ABS data from the 2006 census fell 30% short of the region’s actual Aboriginal population at the time, potentially negatively impacting several types of issues for the Yorta Yorta people.   

Nixon said the data unit’s role is to protect Yorta Yorta mob from unethical research by making sure the local Aboriginal voice is present in future research to ensure the safety of local culture and identity.

Nixon said the Yorta Yorta community had identified how important data sovereignty was to their sustainability and wanted to set their own data priorities such as measuring resource allocation, investment and infrastructure with the goal of closing the gap on Indigenous social and economic disadvantage in the region.