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[BigDataSur] blog 3/3. Good Data: Challenging the Colonial Politics of Knowledge

In the previous instalment of this three-part series on the possibilities of “good data” (here and here), Anna Carlson concluded that notions of decentralisation and autonomy could not do without an understanding of global inequalities and their politics. Moving away from Northern, individualist visions of digital utopia, she considers what can be learned from Indigenous data sovereignty initiatives as they address, from the South, the colonial legacies of global knowledge production. 

The gathering of data has long been a strategy of colonialism. It is part of a set of practices designed to “standardise and simplify the indigenous ‘social hieroglyph into a legible and administratively more convenient format’ (Scott 1999, 3)” (Smith 2016, 120). Making something legible is always already political, and it always begs the question: legible for what, and to whom?

In Australia, making legible meant enumerating Indigenous “‘peoples’ into ‘populations’ (Taylor 2009); their domestic arrangements and wellbeing […] constrained within quantitative datasets and indicators that reflected colonial preoccupations and values” (Smith 2016, 120). No matter how ‘big’ the data set, data is never neutral. As Smith points out, Indigenous self-determination is increasingly linked to “the need to also reassert Indigenous peoples’ control and interpretation into the colonial data archives, and to produce alternative sources of data that are fit for their contemporary purposes” (Smith 2016, 120). Data is knowledge, and knowledge is power.

No matter how it is collected, data has long been used in ways that reinforce and sustain this colonial status quo. Data – often quantitative, often raw numbers – is used strategically. As Maggie Walter argues in a chapter in Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda (2016): “social and population statistics are better understood as human artefacts, imbued with meaning. And in their current configurations, the meanings reflected in statistics are primarily drawn from the dominant social norms, values and racial hierarchy of the society in which they are created” (Walter 2016, 79).

Dianne E Smith expands in the same volume:

“Data constitute a point-in-time intervention into a flow of information of behaviour – an attempt to inject certainty and meaning into uncertainty. As such, data can be useful for generalising from a particular sample to a wider population […] testing hypotheses […] choosing between options (etc). […]  However, when derived from ethnocentric criteria and definitions, data can also impose erroneous causal connections and simplify social complexity, thereby freezing what may be fluid formations in the real world. In their unadorned quantitative form, data are hard-pressed to cope with social and cultural intangibles.” (2016, 119-120)

As such, argues Smith, questions about data governance – “who has the power and authority to make rules and decisions about the design, interpretation, validation, ownership, access to and use of data” – are increasingly emerging as key “sites of contestation” between Indigenous communities and the state (Smith 2016, 119).

One of the more interesting responses to these data challenges comes from the movements for Indigenous Data Sovereignty. C. Matthew Snipp (2016) outlines three basic preconditions for data decolonisation: “that Indigenous peoples have the power to determine who should be counted among them; that data must reflect the interests and priorities of Indigenous peoples; and that tribal communities must not only dictate the content of data collected about them, but also have the power to determine who has access to these data.” In practice, then, it means Indigenous communities having meaningful say over how information about them is collected, stored, used and managed. In Indigenous Data Sovereignty: Towards an Agenda, the editors have brought together a set of interesting case studies reflecting on different examples of Indigenous data sovereignty. These case studies are by no means exhaustive, but they do point to a set of emerging protocols around relationality and control that may prove instructive in ongoing attempts to imagine good data practices in the future.

The First Nations Information Governance Centre (FNIGC)

FNIGC in Canada is an explicitly political response to the role of knowledge production in maintaining colonial power relationship.  The FNIGC articulate a set of principles that should be respected when gathering data about First Nations communities.  These principles are “ownership, control, access and permission” (OCAP), and they are used by the FNIGC as part of a certification process for research projects, surveys and other data gathering mechanisms.  In some ways, they kind of operate as a “right of reply” – pointing to the inadequacies or successes of data-gathering practices.  They aim, at least in part, to address the heavily skewed power relationship that continues to exist between Indigenous communities and the researchers who study them.

“By Maori for Maori” healthcare

This initiative attempts to incorporate Maori knowledge protocols into primary health care provision. In this case, Maori knowledge protocols are incorporated (to some extent) into data collection, analysis and reporting tools which are used by primary health care services (Maori run) in developing knowledge about and responses to health issues in Maori communities. These protocols are also used to develop and enable processes for data sharing across related networks – for example, with housing providers.

Yawuru data sovereignty

The Yawuru, traditional owners of the area around Broome in Western Australia, recognised that gaining control of the information that existed about them (by virtue of the extensive native title data gathering process) was crucial to maintaining their sovereignty. They also recognised the value of a data archive that was produced by and for Yawuru peoples. They undertook their own data collection processes, including a “survey of all Indigenous people and dwellings in the town to create a unit-record baseline.” They sought to create an instrument to “measure local understandings of Yawuru wellbeing (mabu liyan).”They digitally mapped their lands in order to “map places of cultural, social and environmental signficance to inform a cultural and environmental management plan.” Finally, they sought to incorporate Yawuru knowledge protocols into the development of a “documentation project […] to collate and store all relevant legal records, historical information, genealogies and cultural information” in line with Yawuru law.

Beyond these discreet examples, data sovereignty is exercised in a variety of other forms. Much Indigenous knowledge exists entirely outside the colonial state, and is held and protected in line with law. Many of the knowledge keepers in Australia retain this data sovereignty, despite the increasing pressure to make such information public in order to access legal recognition. This speaks to precisely the dilemma of contemporary data politics, as “opting out” of the systems that collect our data is increasingly difficult in a world where giving up our data rights is too often a precondition to accessing the things that make life liveable.