Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness

Tangible examples of reconciliation?

If data is never neutral, then the concept of data sovereignty becomes an essential element of any community’s autonomy or agency.

Indigenous data sovereignty is particularly important, especially in a country like Canada, where reconciliation between indigenous and settler communities is essential.

The argument is familiar: control the data, and you can control the narratives, and applications of that data. Similarly having the ability to collect and analyze said data, on terms set by the community, enables a range of potential policies and actions.

This applies not just to indigenous communities, but any community. Which is why the concept of indigenous data sovereignty provides insights and lessons to our use of data as a whole.

Here’s a good overview, that looks at the principles of OCAP, or ownership, control, access, and possession.

There are a range of reasons that indigenous data sovereignty matters. Linguistic and cultural ones are often cited. As well as the need to participate and direct research that serves respective communities.

However this ongoing pandemic has also illustrated why health care and health policy are also a relevant aspect of indigenous data sovereignty.

Despite a recent victory for Indigenous land rights, tribal communities are still fighting to regain control over another asset: their data.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) refused to share data about COVID-19 rates in Native communities that tribal epidemiology centers (TECs) requested. The CDC cited privacy concerns, as the data included identifying personal information.

State and local health agencies often struggle to obtain health data because of such privacy issues. But tribal health providers say that the real problem is a widespread misunderstanding of the relationship between TECs and other government health agencies. At the same time the CDC denied data requests from TECs, it made the same data available to states.

In August, many tribal epidemiologists still did not have access to the data on testing and infection rates that they needed to track the spread of the coronavirus in their communities.

That’s in the US.

Here in Canada, in Manitoba, there was recently an initiative that seeks to gather and share this data according to data sovereignty principles:

A groundbreaking app created by University of Manitoba researchers in close collaboration with Indigenous partners will help support Indigenous communities around the world as they act to caretake their own health and well-being.

The COVID-19 Indigenous app facilitates community responses, recovery, and resiliency. It is grounded in Indigenous cultures and values of knowing, being and doing. Through the app, questions are posed that are critical for understanding and acting on the emotional, spiritual, mental and physical health of participating community members.

The COVID-19 Indigenous app (available on iOS and Android) has been designed to be easily adapted to the diverse needs and priorities of individual communities while adhering to the principles of data sovereignty and community ownership, control, access and possession of information. No one outside of any given community will have access to these data without their express permission.

These kinds of bottom up initiatives that seek to empower and engage local health efforts as well as encouraging community participation.

There’s a growing awareness of why indigenous data sovereignty is important, and how non-indigenous researchers can partner with communities and conduct their work in more openly and responsibly.

Another example of this that I’ve been wanting to profile for some time is the Enhanced Maritime Situational Awareness (EMSA) program.

This is a collaboration between the federal government and a growing number of coastal communities to monitor and protect increasingly active but also sensitive maritime environments.

Canada has coasts on three Oceans, and this represents some of the largest coastlines and maritime environments in the world. With limited resources it can be difficult to monitor and maintain this vast and diverse geography.

Partnering with local indigenous communities is the best solution. EMSA provides a platform and mandate to not only collaborate, but empower both the communities and also the federal government. It would arguably not be possible to engage in this kind of “awareness” otherwise.

I was able to get a demo of the EMSA system in late 2020, and while it is not open to the public, so as to preserve the privacy and autonomy of these communities, I was permitted to share these three screenshots there were shared with me.

This one is an example of how it tracks all the vessels operating in a given area.

Here’s another layer on the map that shows usage activity in the form of a heat map.

And here’s another layer that shows historical activity of vessels in a particular area.

The premise, potential, and current initial success of this project is to create a shared dashboard of community and government collected information that fosters collaboration in the stewardship and governance of these maritime environments.

This is important for environmental reasons, commercial reasons, national security, the list goes on.

I suspect as with all topics we cover, that this will be something we circle back to. For more on both indigenous data sovereignty and the EMSA program, check out this segment from our Cyberpunk Now show: