A Te Ao Māori Lens on Data Sovereignty

September 6, 2021 | Honouring Te Tiriti, Industry | Dev Academy

Over the last year, one particular kaupapa (topic) has emerged strongly during the many conversations we had with industry — data sovereignty. We were excited to keep this kōrero going, though acutely aware of our limited knowledge and expertise in this field. So on a bright sunny day in August, we invited our industry connections to a panel discussion around the kaupapa of Māori Data Sovereignty. 70 industry leaders showed up in person at ANZ in Pōneke, with another 30 people joining us from across Aotearoa via livestream.

Instead of our usual events with a peer learning environment, we hosted a panel discussion and invited experts to share their knowledge and experience. The intention was to provide a space to listen deeply and learn together.

Kaye-Maree Dunn, Karaitiana Taiuru and Carolyn Stott | Photo: Bob Zuur
Kaye-Maree Dunn, Karaitiana Taiuru and Carolyn Stott | Photo: Bob Zuur

We heard from two exceptional humans and experts in the field of Māori Data Sovereignty:

Dr. Karaitiana Taiuru (Kāi Tahu / Ngāti Kahungunu / Ngāti Toa) is an interdisciplinary Māori academic activist whose work spans Artificial Intelligence ethics and colonisation, data sovereignty, genomic ethics, property rights & Tikanga Māori. Kaye-Maree Dunn (Te Rarawa / Ngāpuhi / Ngāi Te Rangikoianaake / Ngāti Mahanga me Ngāi Tāmanuhiri) is a social impact and technology entrepreneur who is the Director of Making Everything Achievable, and Co-founder and Managing Director of Āhau and Indigital Blockchain.

Carolyn Stott, (Muaūpoko, Taranaki, Te Ati Awa) , our Kaiāwhina, guided the kōrerorero (conversation) with some pātai (questions) for our speakers:

Data is a Taonga – could you please unpack that from a Māori perspective?

Karaitiana Taiuru: Taonga is something valuable, important. In Te Ao Māori that’s whakapapa (genealogy). All data is whakapapa. In the IT industry we talk about anonymous data. From a Te Ao Māori perspective, there’s no such thing. That data is still part of us. A system still knows where that data came from, and from a Māori perspective it still has that spirituality connection; that Mauri (spiritual essence).

Kaye-Maree: I’m seeing it unfold in commercial relationships as well, especially in offshore companies coming into Aotearoa and wanting to create significant data centres here. How do they hold this taonga that belongs to Māori? What is their role and responsibility for that and how do they keep it secure? The fact that we see it as a living part of us is quite different to how our western counterparts might engage with data.

Photo: Bob Zuur
Photo: Bob Zuur

“In Te Ao Māori… all data is whakapapa. In the IT industry we talk about anonymous data. From a Te Ao Māori perspective, there’s no such thing. That data is still part of us.” — Karaitiana Taiuru

What are the key principles of data sovereignty and how can we maintain them?

Karaitiana Taiuru: As Data Scientists and IT people it is your role to protect that data for future generations, and ensure that data is not going to be used against Māori. Use data for good.

Te Mana Rarauranga (TMR), the Māori Data Sovereignty Network, has come up with 6 key principles:

  1. Rangatiratanga | Authority
  2. Whakapapa | Relationships
  3. Whakawhanaungatanga | Obligations
  4. Kotahitanga | Collective benefit
  5. Manaakitanga | Reciprocity 
  6. Kaitiakitanga | Guardianship 

Kaye-Maree’s tech start up Āhau, a digital tool to collect and build whakapapa and whānau stories, is a beautiful example of applying these principles to action by putting the tools for data collection, ownership, and application in the hands of whānau communities.

For Āhau, the data generated by whānau doesn’t live in some American server farm, it instead lives on laptops or phones of people running Āhau. If folks want to share the data, they create groups and invite people to join. All data is encrypted so that only group members can read it, and data is passed only among people within your local neighborhood of peers.

K-M: We don’t want to be a website that holds whānau genealogy, instead it’s a platform that gives whānau the ability to store their genealogy wherever it suits them, the marae, the home, anywhere.

I also feel that decentralisation and transformation is essential in that Māori don’t have to wait for the Crown to provide data to us.

“Decentralisation and transformation is essential in that Māori don’t have to wait for the Crown to provide data to us.” — Kaye-Maree

What are some of the things we should be thinking about as we collect data on Māori?

Karaitiana Taiuru: As practitioners you need to think about:

  • Who owns the data – Iwi, Hapū or a Māori organisation?
  • Consider the Mana Whenua in the area that you are working with.
  • Ensure you have Māori staff working with the data.
  • Ensure that you have Māori working at the governance level.
  • Ensure that any questions that you have about data collection or the treatment of that data are run by a Māori cultural advisor. This prevents biased data or data that is going to harm Māori.

What can we learn from how Māori view data sovereignty that we can apply to our work with data? 

Karaitiana Taiuru: To understand that you are the Kaitiaki (guardian) of the data, the interim holder of that data and consider the future impacts of that data. Don’t use data against people. Ensure that it is co-governed, co-designed and co-managed.

What does true partnership / consultation entail in this context?

Kaye-Maree: First up, I think agencies and individuals need to understand the history of Aotearoa. Do your homework. Don’t be lazy. Don’t expect your Māori staff, Māori advisors to skill you up. It is as much about your own history or whakapapa as local histories. The sign of a healthy partnership is to have an awareness and empathy towards collectives and individuals. The second part is, do you have a protocol and policy to guide your decisions and interactions with Māori? Then there is a third piece about capability, where we ask everyone in the organisation to understand their history and what heavy lifting looks like in being a strong partner. We (Māori) are sovereign people in Aotearoa. We are entering into a space with sovereignty. Are you sovereign too?

Karaitiana Taiuru: Be genuine and be brave! There’s no point being scared to consult with Māori. We’re not scary.

Photo: Bob Zuur
Photo: Bob Zuur

When it was time to bring the kōrerorero to a close, the room was buzzing with even more questions and appetite for discussion. We could have easily spent the day together exploring this kaupapa.

Dev Academy’s Kaihautū Hourua Dougal Stott | Photo: Bob Zuur
Dev Academy’s Kaihautū Hourua Dougal Stott | Photo: Bob Zuur

How does this kaupapa of Māori Data Sovereignty apply to your organisation?

We would love to hear your reflections on this topic and how it applies to your work. We are thinking of starting a ‘Community of Practise’ around this topic to support each other’s learning. If this is of interest to you, please get in touch with Ming Janssen.


Te Mana Raraunga – Principles of Maori Data Sovereignty
Taiuru, K. (2018). Data is a Taonga. A customary Māori perspective.
Taiuru, K. (2021). Kaitiakitanga Māori Data Sovereignty Licences

And the rest of our Honouring Te Tiriti series:
A Dev Academy Journey
Te Rōpū Whakamana Te Tiriti