Indigenous data sovereignty will make the internet a better place for Māori


Small organisations around Aotearoa are placing Māori values at the forefront of their digital services. For IRL, Shanti Mathias talks to some of those working towards a version of the internet that prioritises the needs of indigenous people. 

Initially, Kaye-Maree Dunn (Te Rarawa, Ngā Puhi) wanted to make Indigicoin, the world’s first indigenous cryptocurrency. As a veteran of the Māori social development world – she’s also worked in community housing and the Māori Land court  – she was intrigued by the possibility that blockchain technology could help create more equitable financial outcomes for Māori communities. 

When she met software developer Ben Tairea (Ngāti Nurou, Kuki Airani) at a hackathon, the plan changed: how could they help different iwi and hapū access vital information about their whakapapa without placing that information at risk of exploitative, offshore companies? 

“We set out to design a decentralised system for archiving traditional knowledge and storing genealogy and whakapapa,” she says. The result is Āhau, a tool designed for Māori individuals and groups to store information about their ancestry; she and Taiera are the directors of the company. Dunn is quick to differentiate Āhau from other “off the shelf” genealogy services, such as ancestry.com. 

“Co-creation and co-design has been critical to our approach,” she says. “Because we’re working in the space of genealogy we are very concerned about the sanctity of this sacred knowledge of our tūpuna, our elders and whānau being online.”

Incorporating and acknowledging tikanga within Āhau was vital from day one. “Genealogical information is tapu, and needs to be handled carefully; it shouldn’t be handled near food, which is noa,” Dunn says. As they developed the repository, the designers said special karakia and considered fasting as they wrote code. Their values were integrated into the company’s constitution, setting up processes for what would happen if there were disagreements during the project. Collective input was also prioritised; the service was co-designed with the communities that would use Āhau. “This is a grassroots technology,” Dunn says. 

At a technical level, Āhau is a distributed application, which means user data is stored only on their own device or within networks of their choosing. Users can access information online and offline; a Pātaka, or cloud server, is integrated into the technology, giving the user choice about what information is uploaded and who can access it. The software is also open source – Dunn’s dream is for other indigenous communities around the world to be able to adapt the software for their purposes. “I want Āhau to be a ubiquitous piece of software across our communities to help access support, tribal knowledge, and government financial services,” she says. The application isn’t quite there yet, but “it’s a doorway”.

Digital mana motuhake could change what the internet looks like for the better. (Image: Tina Tiller/Getty Images)

Āhau and its privacy-first decentralised infrastructure is part of a movement for Māori data sovereignty, part of a global conversation about what indigenous sovereignty looks like online. Honouring Māori rights in the data realm is an urgent issue: the government in Aotearoa holds huge amounts of data about Māori, and there are fears that this could be abused with facial recognition technology, or that the government’s agreement with Amazon Web Services will prioritise offshore profit over Aotearoa-based data protection.

While the applications to digital technology are newer, the story of who holds information has always been about power, says Tahu Kukutai (Ngāti Tiipa, Ngāti Kinohaku, Te Aupōuri). “The powerful collect information in a way that benefits themselves,” she says, pointing out that censuses have historically been a means to count the population for military conscription and taxation. The professor of demography at the University of Waikato, also director of ​​Ngā Pae o te Māramatanga, the Māori centre of research excellence, has worked extensively to understand data sovereignty in a Māori context. She founded Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori data sovereignty network, and working with the Iwi Chairs Forum to establish a relationship with Statistics New Zealand to manage iwi data. (However, she spoke to me in a personal, research capacity.) 

In the colonial context, including with censuses, data is something that is taken from people and pooled by the government to maintain control of people and land. As land sovereignty asserts the rights of traditional owners, rather than the state, to have rangatiratanga over the whenua, data sovereignty does that for information. “The rightful authority for indigenous data is not with the state, but with indigenous people,” she says. 

Tahu kukutai sits on a couch and looks at the camera smiling
Tahu Kukutai has been working in the field of Māori data sovereignty for many years (Photo: Grant Maiden/University of Otago Press)

There are specific policy changes at the central  government level which could help improve data outcomes for Māori, says Karaitiana Taiuru (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Rārua, Pākehā), a researcher who specialises in mātauranga Māori and digital sovereignty. “I’d like to see a Māori equivalent of the Privacy Commission to deal with legislation protecting Māori from [data] bias,” he says. “We need to normalise our tikanga and traditional knowledge – I’d like to see kaumatua and mātauranga experts who are involved in the community, not academics, be part of decision making.”

The 2018 census epitomises why the government needs to rethink how they gather and use Māori data, Kukutai says. Its digital-first approach has been blamed for around 30% of Māori being left out of the official count, a result which could have negative funding impacts on Māori populations for years to come. The government has “an appetite to engage with Māori data sovereignty,” she says, although processes to do this have largely not been formalised. She says that good data governance drives the government towards higher data standards that are good for everyone, “especially communities that are over-surveilled and stigmatised”.

But responsibly dealing with indigenous data is too urgent to wait for government action. “True transformation is outside the kāwanatanga system,” Kukutai says, referring to how the system of government agencies engage with information about Māori. “Government has a hard time [giving up] control and stepping aside.” 

Another organisation not waiting for the government to assert their Māori data sovereignty is Te Hiku Media, a Far North-based iwi radio station turned multimedia organisation. In 2018 Te Hiku Media launched a competition to gather recordings of people speaking te reo Māori through their Kōrero Māori app, in the hope of developing a speech-to-text programme to transcribe the thousands of hours of archival recordings held by the radio station. Within 10 days they had received hundreds of hours of language content – enough to develop a transcription app with a remarkably low error rate. This corpus of recorded data is incredibly valuable; Te Hiku Media had to fend off corporations hoping for access to it to develop their own Māori language resources. 

Some of the Te Hiku Media team, with Keoni Mahelona on the far left, at their radio station. (Photo: supplied)

The next stage is Rongo, an app that launched earlier this month. “We’ve built Rongo to improve te reo Māori pronunciation – there’s a risk that English will impact the sound of te reo, and that’s already happening,” says Keoni Mahelona, the chief technology officer of Te Hiku Media. Mahelona, a native Hawaiian, has used his background to build values of sovereignty into Te Hiku’s tech platforms. The app will allow people to practise their te reo pronunciation by speaking into their phone and receiving feedback. All data entered into the app is covered by Te Hiku Media’s Kaitiakitanga licence, which is based on values outlined by Te Mana Raraunga. “Your data is only ever used for the benefit of Māori and Māori education,” Mahelona says. “Third parties using our tools are prohibited from doing surveillance, doing any bad shit or unethical things.” 

Mahelona contrasts Te Hiku’s work with the international language learning app Duolingo, whose indigenous language offerings – including ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi – are built on the labour of indigenous people, without sharing the profits. “Is there any better expression of American capitalism [than] a corporation profiting from teaching the language that was beaten out of our people?” he asks rhetorically.  

Indeed, while there are some inroads to be made with indigenous data sovereignty and governments, it’s much more difficult to ask big technology companies to respect people’s rights to their data. “You have more sovereignty if you build your own platform, it’s harder to effect changes to those mainstream products,” Mahelona says. Te Hiku Media have chosen to host videos themselves, rather than embedding YouTube links on their website. “There is mana in the stories we tell and we can’t give it away to American platforms,” he says.

To make these digital alternatives to big tech possible, digital expertise in Māori communities needs to grow, Dunn says. “We need more indigenous developers, designers, technologists, tech architects, archivists…” she says. It’s a long list, but it’s vital to develop these skills. “We can create a new industry to protect the memories of our elders – our culture, language, and history. That is a real gift for us to have in New Zealand and around the world.” 

Exercising indigenous data sovereignty requires building technological expertise in Māori communities Photo: Getty Images

The movement to assert indigenous data sovereignty online presents an alternate way of being online. The Web 2.0 era, characterised by the dominance of enormous social media platforms filled with user-generated content, is homogenising. No matter where you live, if you use Google or Facebook, the architecture and interface of these platforms are the same, even if the content or language is different. These corporations have profited because they’ve treated all user data, no matter who generated it or why, as a commodity. For instance, Instagram gets away with prioritising video in its feed despite users wanting to see photos because it is more interested in convincing its funders that it can beat TikTok than serving the users it already has. 

Systems like Āhau and Rongo are based on a completely different ideology: they are designed for specific people, in specific places. The goal is not to profit by increasing the scale but to continue to serve that community’s needs. It’s a contrasting vision of the internet, localised and customised to serve a small group of users very effectively. Because the intent is not profit or scale, individual and community users with specific needs are valued over lines on a profit sheet. “We have a small user base because we’re going slowly – I want my own family, my own community to trust Āhau,” Dunn says. For her small organisation, that trust is much more valuable than for big tech, who increase users by making their services a default for communication. 

But while all users, indigenous and otherwise, could benefit from digital services focused on creating and maintaining trust, a clear profit model doesn’t necessarily exist yet. Te Hiku Media receives public funding; Āhau has received a range of grants, and while the service will remain free, Dunn hopes to generate income through providing extra data storage, and perhaps looping back to her initial idea of an indigenous digital currency in the future. While big tech remains dominant for now, there is enormous potential for a diverse range of indigenous technology alternatives which are integrated with indigenous values. 

“Data is an extension of who we are, it’s an extension of what we value,” says Kukutai. Seeing how Te Hiku Media is prioritising  data sovereignty, as well as the many smaller projects with incredible potential, gives her hope for how mokopuna may be able to express mana motuhake through data in the future. “Data can be a powerful enabler for doing and thinking differently … it can bring us together, make us more accountable to each other, it can create benefits and distribute them more equally, it can make us better stewards of te taiao and everything in it,” she says.

“But that needs a dramatic disruption of how we think about and interact with data – what Te Hiku is doing is a step towards that.”


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