Supporting Indigenous governance of Indigenous data

Here we reflect on one of our recent collaborations with the Kaiela Institute, the Indigenous Data Network (IDN) and Scholarly Services to support Indigenous governance of Indigenous Data.


Aboriginal self-determination means that Aboriginal people take charge of their own future and strategies to achieve parity in terms of health, economic, social, and justice outcomes. A prerequisite is that Aboriginal people determine the narrative about them: Setting their own measures of parity and prosperity, tracking progress towards them, and influencing policies that affect them.

In the Goulburn Murray Region, Kaiela Institute and its precursor organisations have pursued the goal of self-determination for more than three decades. Working together, MDAP, Scholarly Services, the Indigenous Data Network (IDN) and Kaiela Institute have taken a big step towards the creation of a Kaeila Institute-owned Aboriginal data governance framework and associated policies. Along the way, each member of the team has learned a lot about the power of collaboration.

Owning narrative

A large and increasing number of public and private agencies collect data about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, which is then used to guide the design and implementation of national, state, regional, and local policies, as well as their evaluation. However, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have little or no control over the data collected about them, nor over the construction and application of these policies and measures drawn from it. This can, and has, led to both inefficiencies in resource allocation and negative consequences such as the now deeply entrenched framing of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a lens of deficit and disadvantage.

The achievement of parity is reliant upon the development of a community-owned definition of prosperity, community-set measures of progress towards this vision, community-led data collection, and community-governed access to, analysis of, and use of these data.

Combining expertise

The IDN and Kaiela Institute formed a relationship to advance Aboriginal community control over their data. Based in northern Victoria, Kaiela Institute is an Aboriginal policy think tank and a backbone for the Goulburn-Murray Empowered Communities initiative. It works closely with Aboriginal-led community organisations throughout the region.

Enabled by the Petascale Campus Initiative (PCI) and the IDN, a writing team with representatives from MDAP, Scholarly Services, and Kaiela Institute came together to design a Kaeila Institute-owned Data Governance Framework that addressed academic, regulatory, and cultural dimensions.

The MDAP Research Data Stewards brought extensive experience in developing frameworks for data governance. Together, we undertook extensive research in finding the right set of guiding principles and culturally appropriate frameworks to develop resources to support a “two-way governance” model that balances Kaiela Institute’s need to address community cultural protocol as well as corporate and data governance protocols.

Data relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, together with decisions and capabilities made using it must be governed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Images: IDN and Kaiela Institute

Building capacity for self-governance

MDAP Research Data Stewards worked closely with the team at Kaiela Institute to assist in the development of a data strategy, including data governance framework and data unit terms of reference for the Algabonyah Data & Research Unit, a self-governing unit established by the Kaiela Institute.

The self-governing data strategy will provide the mechanisms for Indigenous communities in the Goulburn Murray Region to manage, control, protect and honour their information both externally and internally. The capability of managing and controlling data assets will facilitate evidence-based decision making. The resources developed by the team will be submitted to the Victorian Department of Premier and Cabinet.

Kaiela Institute investigator, Sönke Tremper reflects:

“Working with the MDAP team really highlighted two things for me: The power of expertise, and the power of collaboration with the intent to improve the status quo and without ego. This is rare, and it showcased that wonderful things can happen when those with power understand that their biggest possible contribution is to share it.”

Happy NAIDOC Week! 2020 NAIDOC logo, provided under Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-N4 4.0.


MDAP and Scholarly Services collaborators feel extremely privileged to be able to work with the Kaiela Institute team, through the IDN and Petascale Campus Initiative (PCI).

We have a better understanding of Aboriginal self-governance of data and its impact on policymaking, and of meeting expectations of Indigenous data custodians while also satisfying funding bodies and regulatory requirements. We are pleased to have helped embed culturally respectful protocols in developing data governance frameworks and look forward to supporting the mission of the IDN and Kaiela Institute in future projects.

We have also gained deeper insight into what it means to share our expertise. The resources, knowledge and skills required to take charge of their own data are not readily obtainable or accessible to Aboriginal communities.

To a large part, the reasons are structural: How can an Aboriginal community develop this capacity without depending on established academic institutions? What are the power-dynamics between large academic institutions and communities, and how do they play out when data assets are concerned? Whose rules then govern the data collected? Who then controls access to the data and the narrative created with them? And in such a relationship, whose voice is really heard in the scientific and policy domain?

“We have learned how to better collaborate in the presence of significant power imbalance, and we have learned that our expertise is valuable beyond our academic remit: We can use it to shift power.”

This case study has been developed by Dr James Rose (MHDS Chief Investigator), A/Prof Douglas Boyle (MHDS Investigator), Karyn Ferguson (MDHS and Kaiela Institute Investigator), Raelene Nixon (MDHS and Kaiela Institute Investigator), Jasmine Graham (Kaiela Institute Investigator), Sönke Tremper (Kaiela Institute Investigator), Priyanka Pillai (MDAP Lead Investigator and Coordinator), Dr Kristal Spreadborough (MDAP Investigator), Dr Aleks Michalewicz (MDAP Investigator) and Gene Melzack (Scholarly Services Investigator).

Lead image: 2017 Dungala Kaiela Oration in Shepparton, photographed by Peter Casamento and provided by The University of Melbourne.