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Associate Professor Katharina Rucksthul

Associate Professor Katharina Rucksthul

Associate Dean Māori

The University of Otago

Many New Zealand businesses depend on the internet to transact business, with COVID-19 accelerating this momentum. Māori businesses are no different. Online e-commerce platforms such as Hokohoko were a direct response in 2020 to help small Māori businesses in tough times.

Such platforms are the outward face of a collective approach to Māori business. Behind the scenes, Māori are also considering the data that is essential to online transactions. Some describe such data as the ‘new oil’, given that data flows within and beyond national borders. While platforms like Netflix, Alibaba and Meta have used sophisticated and increasingly automated data algorithms to capture consumer insights at global scale, governments likewise have treasure troves of data.

Māori have been scrutinising how governments draw insight from data. As Aboriginal author Maggie Walter describes it, such analysis often reflects a “5D” viewpoint of difference, disparity, disadvantage, dysfunction, and deprivation. With a Māori economy estimated at about $70 billion and rising, it is in everyone’s interest to revisit such analysis and use data insights to identify successes to boost Māori and the nation’s well-being.

However, who gets to define well-being? Many Māori view te reo and tikanga as essential to well-being and success. And, as suggested in a recent Productivity Commission report on frontier firms, Māori cultural values can lead to superior market performance. Therefore, when it comes to data, Māori view a cultural lens as crucial.

One issue is that most data does not come with a Māori lens. For example, how does one consider a whakapapa approach to data? Nor is most data subject to Māori oversight, or rangatiratanga. Some of this played out in late 2021 when a Whānau Ora group took legal action against the Ministry of Health to release COVID vaccination data to support Māori individuals with historically poor health outcomes. Issues of data privacy versus a Māori collective approach highlighted the tensions in a Māori-oriented perspective of data use.

This is not a new issue, either in New Zealand or internationally. The European Union is the global leader in this respect and in 2018 passed privacy and security laws that target organisations anywhere in the world – including in New Zealand – if they collect data on EU citizens. This can be seen as an example of data sovereignty and the right to decide as a Nation or collective of Nations as to how data is collected and used.

Many Indigenous people also see themselves as nations, whether they are nations within Nation States, such as in the US or Canada, or where there is a strong and distinguishing nation-like identity, as is the case with many iwi. In this context, data sovereignty derives from a desire to build strong Indigenous nations both through the ability to make decisions about how others use data, as in the COVID-19 case, but also how it might inform decision-making, that is, data for governance.

Having some say over data to make good decisions for a tribal nation’s well-being, including the well-being of their environment, lies at the heart of Māori data sovereignty. But this can be a difficult task when data collection and analysis only reflects others’ priorities. For example, researchers have revealed how algorithms based on biased data have discriminated against women, minorities or people of colour in areas as diverse as hiring, credit-worthiness, housing and justice.

One way to mitigate this is being trialled in New Zealand. In 2019 an agreement was developed between Stats NZ and the Data Iwi Leaders Group of the National Iwi Chairs Forum to realise the potential of data to make a sustainable, positive difference to outcomes for iwi, hapū, and whānau. Such data can drive decisions in many areas and help iwi and other Māori focussed users to specify their local resource needs and identify opportunities, whether social, cultural, environmental or economic.

Globally, the Indigenous data sovereignty movement is reframing data discussions within an Indigenous ethic. While much of the Māori data sovereignty discussion in New Zealand has been in the public and research sectors, there are implications for the private sector too. For example, how can the private sector work with Māori collectives to explore concepts such as rangatiratanga, whakapapa, or kaitiaki when it comes to data? Can such insights create new business models and highlight opportunities and what data governance and infrastructure might be required?

There is no one answer to such questions. However, both the private and public sectors need to be involved in the discussion for Māori and broader New Zealand to realise the nation’s well-being.