Decolonizing data
Supporting Indigenous sovereignty in ocean data
March 3, 2023

Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) is working with Indigenous communities and other partners to explore best approaches for supporting Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty over their own ocean data as part of a broader drive towards decolonization of data acquisition and ownership.

ONC and the Canadian Integrated Ocean Observing System (CIOOS) this week hosted a workshop to launch a year-long pilot program to introduce and explore a new tool to support Indigenous data governance in Canada with members from Indigenous coastal communities. The project is funded through the Digital Research Alliance of Canada Pilot Project Program.

The new tool, developed by global initiative Local Contexts, is a suite of customizable labels that can be applied to data to reinforce Indigenous sovereignty over that data set. In practical terms, these digital markers help communities gain control over how data within territories is collected, managed, accessed, and used in the future. Representatives from Local Contexts joined today’s workshop to introduce the TK and BC Labels and Notices.

ONC will be an early adopter in Canada of these Traditional Knowledge (TK) and BioCultural (BC) Labels and Notices, the latter of which are used by researchers and institutions to identify Indigenous collections and interests in data.

Reyna Jenkyns, Data Stewardship Manager, says the workshop is the start of an important process to officially recognise Indigenous cultural and intellectual property, and to evolve data management practices.

In practice, an Indigenous community would create and customize a TK or BC Label by adding provenance information and contextual metadata (including community names), protocols, and permissions for access, use and circulation. A community member could then apply that new customized Label to a data set.

These new labels support the principles of “CARE” (Collective benefit, Authority to control, Responsibility, Ethics) for Indigenous data governance. When applied in tandem with the “FAIR” (Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse) principles to “open” data, the data can optimally serve the needs of all stakeholders, says Jenkyns. This is an evolution from an ambiguous blanket-concept of “open” data to a transparent but controlled accessibility of data and services.

BC Labels define community expectations about appropriate use of biocultural collections and data with a focus on accurate provenance, transparency and integrity in research engagements with Indigenous communities.

ONC ocean observing networks generate ‘big data’ in the form of high-resolution sensor measurements, video, and underwater sound recordings from the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans–used by over 32,000 researchers, communities and decision-makers around the world.

The application of FAIR principles for data sets is part of ONC’s commitment to leadership in data stewardship for a sustainable ocean economy, says Jenkyns.

“Coast to coast to coast Indigenous peoples are at the frontlines of ocean observation and have been for thousands of years,” says Pieter Romer, ONC Indigenous Community Liaison, “They know first hand the effects of climate change and the trends in their territories’ species on land and the sea. To have long term and complete data, it is important for scientists working in their territories to see the importance in building relations and partnerships with Indigenous communities.”

ONC President and CEO Kate Moran says data has a crucial role to play in advancing Indigenous innovation and self-determination.

“ONC will continue to support truth and reconciliation in Canada through the development of new tools and strategies that recognize our Indigenous community partners and promote ethical data use for all.”

Local Contexts is a global nonprofit that supports Indigenous data sovereignty by creating a digital infrastructure for community governance of Indigenous data.

ONC is proud to support 10 community-led observatories on the Arctic, Pacific, and Atlantic coastlines of Canada, providing access to the data through the Oceans 3.0 data portal.

CIOOS is a collaboration among institutional, governmental, and non-governmental partners located in the Pacific, the St. Lawrence, and the Atlantic. ONC is one of its founding organizations.

Our institution is committed to the development of new modes of collaboration, engagement, and partnership with Indigenous peoples for the care and stewardship of past and future heritage collections.

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