Your browser is out-of-date!

For a better experience, keep your browser up to date. Check here for latest versions.

×

Decolonizing Digital: Developing Indigenous Digital Innovation

March 17, 2020

Share story

In the last articles in this series, we talked about four elements of digital decolonization: Indigenous Peoples are still here, they are global actors, they have specific rights, and these elements are woven throughout Indigenous Data Sovereignty to support self-determination. This post illustrates the core issues that software developers need to consider when creating Indigenous Data Sovereignty technology. This list is not exclusive nor in-depth; each of these topics are worthy of further discussion. This article provides an overview of Information Technology (IT) requirements that our experience has shown are common among Indigenous communities.

There are 370+ million Indigenous Peoples living in all regions of the world, and trying to meet their needs given the sheer diversity of their cultures and worldviews represents a serious challenge. This is the case in building any software that creates solutions that can work for so many different people.

For example, in what we currently call “Canada”, there are at least 1.6 million Indigenous people who represent more than 5% of the population.

How can Indigenous Data Sovereignty software be developed with a mind towards avoiding not only a pan-Indigenous approach to identity but also a pan-Indigenous approach to technology?

Can one size fit all?

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Developing custom software is an expense that many Indigenous communities cannot afford or justify to external funding agencies (especially if they assume that Indigenous Peoples are all similar). As far as we can determine, no one has been able to develop modern software solutions that consistently work beyond small, and often expensive, use cases. This is a serious problem because software that works for many different communities needs to come with an ease of use and customization that doesn’t require a software developer to customize it.

In a way, Indigenous Data Sovereignty software could act as a template for this software. It needs to be both replicable enough to benefit from economies of scale and modular enough to account for sometimes paradoxical, community-defined data. In other words, it must have a basic foundation that provides a structure for many diverse Indigenous communities, while still being adaptable.

Without customization, users often find themselves trying to do something that the software doesn’t allow. Then, as innovative humans, we create workarounds (which often lead to other workarounds) until the software that was supposed to save time and money ends up squandering both. In a capitalistic world where time is money, and money buys time, we can’t afford to waste either.

Making Sense of Software Options

Not everybody has the time or ability to explore the endless software options on the market. It’s even more overwhelming if you don’t know what your needs are, from a technical perspective, and if you can’t translate those needs into the technical jargon common in the Information Technology (IT) sector. There are few initiatives that attempt to simplify this process, such as the First Nations in BC Knowledge network, but given the speed that technology changes and evolves it’s almost impossible to keep these resources up-to-date.

If you don’t know what to look for or where to look for it, what happens? You need someone else to tell you, and there are endless waves of salespeople that come knocking. Animikii is no exception as we’re a company that needs customers too. We try to be as transparent as possible in what we do, and how we do it, which is why we invest in this blog and publish our annual Social Impact Reports.

We also recommend that custom software companies conduct intensive roadmapping sessions with their partners to make sure that all parties are aligned before any code is written. This means taking time to discuss, consult, and build relations that make clear the technological debt that accrues when software developers take shortcuts aren’t quite right for the programming task. This often happens when they are rushing a product to market for a generic, mainstream audience. Technological debt is not always bad, depending on the circumstance, but it’s important that their partners are not forgotten. Someone has to take care of that debt sooner or later, preferably sooner, because as it grows it causes more technical problems which costs more time and money to fix. 

Technical debt is one of the major downsides of buying off-the-shelf software that dictates your needs for you instead of asking what those needs are. You will inevitably spend a lot of time and money modifying the software to suit your needs, or spend a lot of mental real estate on dealing with the frustrations that come with working around the limitations of the software. Just because the software is working as intended doesn’t mean that it is intended for you.

It’s imperative that Indigenous communities have the final say in anything they are involved in. This means basing all technological development on the principles of Free, Prior, and Informed Consent. This way, communities know what they are agreeing to when they are buying and using any software, which becomes even more relevant with software-as-a-service with its ongoing subscription fees and subsequent development.

Be FAIR and CARE

Technology takes on and promotes the perspectives of those who created it. It’s important that those who create technology are familiar with the values of those affected by their products. After all, if technology, software, and algorithms are most often made by non-Indigenous men, will they be biased to work better for them to the exclusion of everyone else? 

Fortunately, there are data initiatives that are designed to meet the needs of Indigenous Peoples. The CARE principles were developed by a team of scientists in response to the following statement:

 “the open data movement (e.g. FAIR: findable, accessible, interoperable, reusable) primarily focus on characteristics of data that will facilitate increased data sharing among entities while ignoring power differentials and historical contexts.” - Global Indigenous Data Alliance

Encouraging open data through FAIR principles is still important, but Indigenous data requires additional safeguards to ensure that they are held, protected, and controlled by their community. The best way to do this is to #beFAIRandCARE and combine FAIR with the following CARE principles:

  • C — Collective Benefit
    • Inclusive development and innovation
    • Improved governance and citizen engagement
    • Equitable outcomes
  • A — Authority to Control
    • Recognizing rights and interests
    • Data for governance
    • Governance of data
  • R — Responsibility
    • Positive relationships
    • Expanding capability and capacity
    • Indigenous languages and worldviews 
  • E — Ethics
    • Minimizing harm and maximizing benefit
    • Justice
    • Future use

(Source - follow the Global Indigenous Data Alliance for further updates)

Using FAIR and CARE principles advances Indigenous innovation to support Indigenous self-determination. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it’s better. So these principles should be treated as safeguards built into all software for or about Indigenous Peoples. Even something as simple as using Traditional Knowledge labels can help identify forms of data that may need cultural consideration.

Further, as all Indigenous data exists in relation to actual people, a feminist digital ethics of care could be considered based on the following four key elements:

  • Attentiveness
    • Have we considered who is impacted by the choice and then listened to their needs and voice in relation to it?
  • Responsibility
    • Do we have a reason to attend this relationship?
  • Competence
    • Can we follow through once we have heard from the people impacted?
  • Responsiveness
    • Have we provided care that responds to the needs we are supposed to be attending to (ie. whose will are we truly serving?)? And how can we demonstrate this?

(Source - check out the TRU Digital Detox 2020 for further details)

Combining FAIR data with CARE principles and considering it through a feminist digital ethics of care, is the best way to ensure cultural safety with Indigenous data. As Leanne Betasamosake Simpson says, we need to “lovingly detonate” all of the barriers that heteropatriarchy creates. This involves both data and technology, but this challenge will require serious investment of both time and resources, something that Indigenous Peoples don’t always have in abundance.

The Costs of Data Sovereignty

As mentioned at the beginning of the Decolonizing Digital series, Indigenous organizations, including governments, don’t often have full control over their own finances. It may surprise you how little control they have even over their own revenue. In a capitalistic settler-colonial economy, it’s difficult to make a lot of money when you own little land. Meanwhile, the value of land  is ruled by supply and demand where there’s always a demand but little supply.

Without ownership of land as a key, but complicated, driver for economic growth, many Indigenous organizations or governments often have little to no revenue generation that they have complete control over. This remains a reality for Indigenous Peoples around the world, despite the United Nations recognizing  Indigenous Peoples as sovereign with mechanisms such as their Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) designed to protect their rights. 

Control of the economy is a central element of sovereignty. Without it, Indigenous Peoples must  negotiate with outside entities and shuffle funds from one program to another just to keep the lights on, much less support vital infrastructure.

It’s hard to even think about funding expensive Information Technology (IT) projects when your community doesn’t have reliable internet, much less affordable electricity or clean drinking water.

Investing in the Future

There’s a vicious cycle where communities or organizations that could benefit the most from IT-based solutions are the ones who cannot access them. Projects need to be both affordable and effective. This isn’t easy and it often requires cutting corners to maintain this balancing act. This is where the economy of scale works against Indigenous communities when they invest in custom software. Each change to the software may require a high development cost that can’t be spread across other customers, yet it must be done because off-the-shelf software is not often designed for that community’s unique needs.

Software purchases represent an investment over time. Like any return-on-investment, the purchaser needs to balance the upfront costs with what will be saved during the lifetime of the investment. Custom software often has very high upfront costs, with a longer return-on-investment, so developing modular software can find a balance between upfront costs and long-term maintenance. The easier it is to keep software up-to-date, the more money can be saved over time as technology changes.

We can’t ignore the systematic underfunding by the Government of Canada of Indigenous organizations that lead to overworked staff having impossible workloads and high turnover.

Indigenous IT solutions need to work right away, with user interfaces and designs that are understandable, intuitive to Indigenous people, and accessible to a wide range of technical and physical abilities.

These requirements increase the likelihood of successful software adoption as staff are onboarded faster, their workload is reduced, and the impact of their efforts becomes more measurable. In other words, Indigenous software needs to be reliable, automate mundane tasks, do things faster, and save time.

Time isn’t money, it’s people’s lives. There’s a lot of pressure on Indigenous organizations to do a lot of very difficult work with very few resources. While technology alone cannot solve this fundamental structural problem, it can alleviate pressure on frontline staff and managerial leadership to do more with less. This is often referred to as operating or administrative efficiency, and this is a key consideration that we unpack further below.

Data Administration Efficiency

The more that we centralize data into a single place and format, the easier it is to distribute outwards (newsletters, mail-outs, website updates, etc.), and keep updated by different departments, agencies, or individuals.

Indigenous organizations can increase their administrative efficiency if they use a modular platform that combines industry-standard security practices, well-defined user roles, a single source of truth, and real-time collaboration.

With this platform, they will spend less time finding things, sharing them, or figuring out who or what belongs where.

Also, it will be easier to onboard new staff and store knowledge in a transferable manner with this software. People move on and take what they know with them, so it’s important that institutional knowledge is also transferable. This is even more important in organizations with either a high staff turnover or some older staff who are nearing retirement.

If an organization is not careful with how it transfers knowledge, they lose a lot of essential information when staff members leave and it can take a lot of time and resources to regain that knowledge. Worse, work can be replicated which leaves an administrative treadmill that speeds up while the organization doesn’t make any progress.

Many organizations suffer from so-called silos, where departments or elements of organizations are segmented and have difficulty sharing things between them. This can create unforeseen problems, so software has to not only consider data, but the people who interact with both the data and the software.

Indigenous software design considers people and their non-human relations in all aspects of its implementation. Building software should be a collaborative endeavor not only with who is building the software, but who the software will serve. It’s an ongoing relationship between humans and non-humans who both have agency. Organizations often turn to software not to do something new, but to do something they already know how to do, they just want to do it better. As such, they are the experts in what they do, and software companies work to support their efforts, not the other way around.

Easy Data Entry

Data are not software, but software is composed of data, and it’s always hungry for new data so it can continue to operate. Often these two concepts get confused which can lead to misunderstandings and disappointment. If software cannot be populated, or filled, by relevant data, then it is useless. It’s like looking at a picture frame without a picture encased, it is just a potential space for future data. If you have to break the picture frame to insert a picture, or the picture comes with a stock photo that cannot be changed, then it won’t do you much good. Also, if your picture won’t fit in the frame without being cropped beyond recognition then the frame won’t work either.

Software salespeople sell the idea that their product will solve your data-related problems. In a way, their products provide a framework that you need to build upon so you can answer the questions that your organization has. In simple terms, they give you an empty box and you need to put stuff (data) into it. But what if your stuff doesn’t fit? Like putting a square peg in a round hole, what if your data is incompatible with the new software? Does this create a new series of problems that you don’t have a solution for?

Data needs to be compatible with the software that uses it. People can take incompatible data and manipulate it so it works in new software environments, but the longer that this takes or the more it distorts the initial data (the more is lost by trimming the corners of the square peg), the higher the risk that the software causes more problems than it solves. Software needs user buy-in and if people find it “too hard to use”, claim that “it just doesn’t work right”, or say that “no one wants to use it”, then there’s a big chance that it won’t be the solution that it was first thought to be. While user training can alleviate some of these concerns, sometimes the cost to do so makes the software unusable.

If the user interface isn’t intuitive, if people can’t enter data the moment they need to, or if it takes too many clicks just to do simple repetitive tasks, then the likelihood of software being embraced by users drops. Worse, if users hate the software or just can’t use it because of skills or technical issues, they may keep data stored elsewhere, like on a spreadsheet or a piece of paper. While this may not be a problem in the short term, over time these workarounds represent major data liabilities and hidden losses in administrative efficiency. Data management doesn’t have to be fun, but it shouldn’t be so aggravating that users can’t do it well.

Accessibility & The Digital Divide

Just because we are promoting digital data solutions, that doesn’t mean that paper or other forms of recording data become obsolete. Not everywhere in the world has reliable internet that is fast or can work with bandwidth-consuming multimedia. Many Indigenous communities, not only those in the north, have severe limitations to their community’s communications infrastructures. There are initiatives such as the First Nations Technology Council, Internet Society, and Pathways to Technology that are working to change this, but there’s big geographical and economic challenges in doing so. 

There are other elements of accessibility to consider. Not everyone can read a screen, type on a keyboard, use a mouse, or sit in front of a computer screen for extended periods of time. Developers need to consider accessibility laws and older software might not consider these things. The cost, both in monetary and moral capital, of meeting legal requirements may become more burdensome and further the so-called digital divide. Indigenous governments must serve all of their citizens regardless of physical diversity.

For example, in Ontario, “Beginning January 1, 2021 all public websites and web content posted after January 1, 2012 must meet WCAG 2.0 Level AA other than criteria 1.2.4 (live captions) and 1.2.5 (pre-recorded audio descriptions)”. Even if this legislation doesn’t apply to you, it’s still best practice and sets minimum standards via the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) Web Accessibility Initiative that web developers should aspire to meet. While these standards don’t apply to applications that are not web-based, it still begs the following questions: Is your software accessible? How would you know? What are the costs if it isn’t? Can it be made accessible? If so, how much would that cost? If not, then what?

Transparency of Data Access & Changes to Data

While Indigenous Data Sovereignty requires that some data needs to be kept confidential or hidden, in other regards, there needs to be transparency and openness. When data are created or manipulated, there needs to be accountability built into the system through common methods such as audit logs or more complex technologies such as blockchain. The former is well-established in the software world, and while the latter is being pursued, it may be difficult to implement.

Also, regardless of our desires for complete Indigenous Data Sovereignty, we have to recognize that Indigenous organizations are often accountable to outside entities for everything from funding to basic data sharing. Without adequate data systems or practices to make for simple reporting, Indigenous organizations can be trapped by administrative burdens. Money and resources that could be going elsewhere are trapped in finding ways to account for the very money and resources that are needed to report themselves. This creates a twisted, bureaucratic nightmare - a sort of accountability debt that may never be paid.

Knowing who did what, when they did it, how they did it, and maybe even why they did it, are essential to good reporting practice. In software terms, these are called logs - a technical mechanism that creates records of interactions with records. Organizations review these logs to understand what’s going on behind the scenes with their IT. 

However, log reviews need to be implemented as part of an administrative review system otherwise they will fill up with useless data that’s just using up storage space and processing power. They could also end up being a liability if they were to fall into the wrong hands. Sometimes metadata is just as valuable as the data that it is associated with

Further, if organizations cannot report what’s happening with their members, this risks further entrenching distrust, lateral violence, and general discontentment among the community. This goes for any organization or government, but it’s vital to self-determination efforts that those who are being represented are well-informed by their leaders. Otherwise, who is the “self” being referred to here? The people or their so-called leaders?

Indigenous Data needs to be held at the communal level - the community needs to be able to access it. Yet freedom of information and free speech are privileges that many Indigenous people don’t enjoy in their communities that have suffered from so much colonial interference.

Single Source of Truth

Another consideration that might be overlooked is the concept of a “single source, and single version, of truth”.

“While single source of truth is about managing disparate data across various systems, single version of truth is about delivering the right data to decision makers.”

In simple terms, this means that there should be one, and only one, record of an aspect of data. In other words, if you have a list of something, there should only be one list.

We’ve all experienced this with documents named something like “work.xlsx”, “work-v2.xlsx”, “work-v2-copy.xlsx”, “work-new.xlsx”, “work-final.xlsx” or the dreaded “work-new-v3-copy-final-v2-new(1).xlsx”.

Which file is the one that you should be updating? What if each document has different data? Which data are accurate? Which data are “true?” This leads to confusion, stress and, often wasted time and energy just trying to understand what file you should be dealing with. Having a single source and version of truth helps foster not only administrative efficiency but peace of mind.

Off-the-shelf software often can’t account for the data paradoxes that a long legacy of colonial recordkeeping has created in Indigenous datasets. For example, something that seems straightforward like membership — who belongs to a community — does not have a straightforward answer. Local databases may show one thing while federal databases show another. The same goes for land records, housing records, health records, etc. Like the problem of multiple spreadsheets, how do we know which data are right? Where is the truth? Is it in one database, another, or multiple at the same time? 

While collaboration is essential to Indigenous data, it can be very difficult to do if technical limitations obscure what data are right or true. It’s still possible but requires a lot of cooperation and data discipline that’s not often practical.

Software that can share records while being updated by multiple people in real-time makes collaboration seamless and that much easier. Which makes it easier to keep things in one place because everyone knows that’s where to go to find information. This can be done virtually in a multitude of ways, but not as much with older technology such as MS Access that was premised on one user, one record.

Linking Data Between Silos

As Indigenous Peoples regain sovereignty, responsibilities continue to spread from individual people to departments, departments to divisions, and decision making moves between different levels of authoritative power. What this means in practice is that data that are held by separate parts of the organization may not interact well, if at all.

Different parts of organizations do different things, and often have different software that does those things. One division may need information from another, but it may be in a data format that is incompatible with outside divisions or internal policies that create roadblocks for the information to move around.

Unless divisions, departments, or any other form of segmented organizations share data via compatible software and networks, their administrators often export data into something temporary, like a spreadsheet, sent via email or moved via a thumb drive, and then import this data into another information system. There may be multiple layers of managerial permissions required to do this, which may mean asking multiple authorities for permission which leads to delays or internal politics slowing down information transfer or blocking it altogether.

As each segment of the organization holds a different piece of the information puzzle, it can be very difficult for their leaders or staff to make holistic decisions.

They lose a lot of analytical power when they can’t see the relationships between different data. Also, they could be replicating data collection and analysis across the organization, meaning that multiple people are working on the same thing without any collaboration. In organizations that are already operating on a tight budget, this kind of inefficiency is a hidden cost that can add up without anyone noticing.

These problems are found at the highest level of the Government of Canada and have filtered down into the administrative burdens that Indigenous organizations have to deal with. While Indigenous Peoples are being considered in Canada’s National Data Strategy, their sovereignty isn’t part of that discussion. When it is, it’s still very much under the colonial assumption of “Canada’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples”, which assumes a paternalistic relationship and closes off the imagination to any considerations of actual Indigenous Sovereignty.

If Indigenous Peoples are to move forward with their resurgence, they need to prioritize Indigenous Data Sovereignty on their own terms.

Mitigating Risk & Securing Data

Given the sensitive nature of Indigenous data, good information security designs and practices are essential to any Indigenous data strategy. All organizations are vulnerable to cyber attacks and this is something that Indigenous organizations in particular need to invest more resources into as they move to digital forms of governance, record keeping, and communications. Ransomware attacks are very common but Indigenous organizations often fall through holes in privacy legislation that are designed to protect non-Indigenous people’s privacy rights. It’s impossible to determine the scale of this problem without stronger legal requirements to report and protect against data breaches.

Regardless, good user education, industry-standard data access controls, updated software, and data interoperability are all essential practices that mitigate cyber attack and data breach risk but still maintain administrative efficiency. It’s a fine balancing act, too much security slows administration to a crawl, whereas too little security opens up the organization to attacks that may have irreversible consequences.

There are many elements of cyber security that are common to any organization and can be better explored elsewhere, so this section will just describe a few elements in relation to risks to consider when working with Indigenous data.

Access to Data Within Role-Based Permissions

While ownership, control, access and possession (OCAP®) are important fundamental Indigenous data principles, their implementation may lead to privacy and security complications. In essence, data must be collectively held, while at the same time only accessible to those who should use it. This can be done through what are called “user roles”, which give people access to only certain prespecified parts of a program or dataset. Sometimes it’s not appropriate to share all data with all members of a community, just parts that are relevant to the task at hand.

For example, First Nations data are often shared with outsiders, most often through the legally mandated referrals process which is different across the provinces. This occurs when outside agencies are “obligated to consult and accommodate First Nations, where required, on land and resource decisions that could impact their Indigenous Interests.” These outsiders need to know where these interests are, and what the impact on interfering with them, often without knowing what they are or their full cultural significance. There’s an ongoing legacy of cultural artifacts stolen or appropriated, and sometimes information about these sites must stay hidden, accessible only to the community who claims them, so they remain protected.

Defining user roles is a challenge for any organization, but it’s even more important that Indigenous organizations get it right given what’s at risk. Software needs to have comprehensive flexibility to account for many potential scenarios of which users or user groups do what, when, where, how and why. This is accounted for in software development through “user stories” and “epics”

Maintaining data privacy through access privileges is a key consideration as any data collected, Indigenous or not, is data at risk. When done right, these roles allow for data to be protected while still accessible to those who need it. When done wrong, data could be leaked, stolen, made inaccessible and otherwise lost. This can lead to years of setbacks and massive administrative costs to rebuild datasets, some of which once lost are gone forever. 

Non-Destructive Software Updates

Software development is never complete. There’s no such thing as a technological solution that captures all externalities or is 100% secure. Bugs or flaws in code can be exploited, lead to crashes or data loss, and require constant patching regardless of the platform used. 

Also, technological ecosystems are always in flux as they adjust to new trends or developments. This means that software that works one day may become obsolete the next. The software may still “work”, but may not be compatible or secure. This is why operating systems such as Windows, MacOS, and Android require ongoing updates. If software can’t keep up with wider technological ecosystems, security risks and general obsolescence accumulates and grows exponentially.

Given the prevalence of project-based financing in Indigenous organizations, one-off payments for software development can lead to significant problems in the future as funding is no longer available for software updates.

Worse, if the people or companies who built the software are no longer around, then what?

Buying software can be like buying a car. Both depreciate in value over time, faster if they are not maintained or are damaged, and will someday need to be repaired, retrofitted, and replaced. What then?

  • If your data are tied to a particular software, can they be recovered and migrated to something else?
  • Are your data tied to aging and thus vulnerable software?
  • Are your data being held hostage? 

These questions show why the concept of sovereignty is so important, even when applied to data that at first glance seems somewhat mundane. Any software can become ransomware if you can’t access your data without it.

Interoperability with Other Software and Technologies

It’s okay if software becomes obsolete and needs to be changed or updated as long as the data found within is compatible with the new solution. This is easier if software can be integrated with other software, often those made by other companies using different technologies. The more that core data are tied to specific software, the higher the risks are of eventual data loss as the software is abandoned or made obsolete.

Further, Indigenous organizations need to collaborate with other organizations, Indigenous or not, and so does their data. From referrals to joint management of resources, or consultations and partnerships, sharing data is a fundamental aspect of nation-to-nation relationships. While settlers have a much larger burden of responsibility in this, Indigenous people need to be able to share their data as well.

This is an even bigger issue in Indigenous communities that share borders with non-Indigenous municipalities. In these cases, it often makes sense for many local services to be shared among multiple entities that each operate under different legal frameworks, with differing IT capabilities and available resources.

Songhees Nation, where Animikii is based, is one such example. The Songhees Nation shares borders with the Esquimalt Nation, the Township of Esquimalt, the Town of View Royal, The City of Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Electoral Area, the Canadian Department of National Defence, BC Parks, and has both a quasi-defunct railway and Capital Regional District trail that cuts through their main reserve. This means that local leaders need to cooperate on day-to-day affairs and the easier it is for them to share information, the easier it is for them to collaborate on projects.

Indigenous data and Indigenous Sovereignty are linked. Regardless if it’s an Indigenous government or an Indigenous non-governmental organization, they have a sacred responsibility and duty to protect the data that they collect. The disrespect of Indigenous Peoples’ data runs deep in colonial thinking, so we have a lot of work ahead of us to decolonize all things digital.

This article has listed only basic requirements that we at Animikii feel are important to support Indigenous resurgence through Indigenous Data Sovereignty. But this is all talk. What do we do as a social enterprise, a business that prides itself on giving back to our communities? What is our role in all of this?

Supporting the Indigenous Innovation Ecosystem

“Animikii has been developing custom software for years and we are bringing that experience to our new data sovereignty product that will empower its users to control and protect their data with good data practices, at a lower cost, and on their own terms.” — Animikii Founder Jeff Ward

While it may seem bold to promote ourselves in this space, the intertwined concepts of Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Indigenous digital innovation are nothing new to Animikii. Throughout Animikii’s 16-year history, we’ve been innovating without much of a need to put a name or title to it. It’s just a part of who we are and what we would do anyway.

Just by being an Indigenous-focused digital services agency, and a certified B Corporation at that, we’re in a “new” space.

We’re forced to innovate, as Indigenous people have always done, but one of our biggest focuses has been on changing the narrative of Indigenous people’s involvement in the tech sector.

This is most recently demonstrated via our ongoing Indigenous Innovators social media campaign, podcast, and website.

Looking through these resources, you’ll find Indigenous innovation in spaces that defy stereotypes, misrepresentations, and flawed concepts of what it means to be Indigenous. Our definition of Indigenous innovation means that:

  • Innovators must identify as an Indigenous person;
  • Innovators must have contributed, in some form, to the overall improvement of societal, economic, or social change for their communities, industries, or organizations;
  • Innovators must guide their practices by at least one of the Seven Sacred Teachings of Love, Courage, Truth, Respect, Humility, Wisdom, and Honesty; and
  • Innovators must work, to some degree, in the public sphere as a way to enact long-standing and impactful change.

Note that there’s nothing here about boosting profits, promoting exponential growth, or celebrating individualistic initiatives. 

Our version of innovation involves building relationships, supporting communities, and developing collaborations that lead to social improvements guided by our company values.

Some examples of what we do include:

Okay, the last entry in the list is a bit of a joke (the article it links to isn’t),  but it’s important to note that we have an Indigenous component to everything that we do. It’s so prevalent that it’s almost ridiculous to put the Indigenous descriptor in front of all of these things that we do. In many ways we don’t have to “Indigenize” anything because it’s part of everything that we already do, often without realizing it. That should be the end goal of any sovereignty project - the normal state of just being one’s self. We don’t all have to be Indigenous, but we do have to share this space we currently call Canada, and respecting the original Peoples of this land is key to everything here.

What’s Next With Animikii

We’ve been growing a lot in the last few years, at the time of this writing we’re at 13 staff but growing quickly as we take on more partners and tackle bigger projects. To support these efforts, we’ve raised $1 million in financing and are ramping up development of our own Indigenous Data Sovereignty product called Niiwin.

Niiwin is still in early stages of development, with the first phase focusing on decreasing the time and effort it takes to develop our custom web-apps. The overall goal of this phase is to develop the foundation of the technology for our own use which allows for more complex projects for tighter budgets. In other words, we’ll be able to do more with less so we can pass those savings onto our partners. This means that our new projects will have initial elements of Niiwin baked in. The end result will be the same, but our developers will appreciate a more streamlined and unified foundation to work with.

The second phase of Niiwin will be for Indigenous governments, non-governmental organizations, and businesses that have a need for centralized but modular approaches to their data management. We want to partner with these organizations to build better data, support Indigenous Data Sovereignty on their terms, and do our part in Indigenous resurgence. This means more than just selling generic resource management software; we aim to decolonize data via holistic techno-social approaches that reconnect Indigenous Peoples with their data.

The third phase of Niiwin will bring Indigenous Data Sovereignty tech to the world and provide software that can be used with or without our assistance. Our end-goal is that this technology will be available to everyone, Indigenous or not, to prove that not only can we compete with non-Indigenous tech firms in their colonial spaces, but we can do things better and with a positive social impact. We want to prove that the stereotype of Indigenous people being “technologically inferior” is not only ridiculous, but does harm to both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people alike. We’re hoping that we can serve as inspiration to other Indigenous people to divest away from resource development and into ethical technology and digital innovation. Ambitious? Sure. But we’re not alone.

We don’t want to reveal too much information about this product as we don’t want to overpromise and underdeliver. It’s very much a work-in-progress. Instead, here’s a list of a few key objectives that are driving our product development (in no particular order):

  • Build Indigenous Data Sovereignty software that follows and supports OCAP® principles.
  • Design from the ground up through Indigenous lenses, worldviews, and knowledges.
  • Allow for self-service by end-users or full-service via Animikii’s services.
  • Reduce maintenance of software-as-a-service costs for customers.
  • Make it customizable to suit individual and communal needs.
  • Implement modern practices in data, security, and privacy.
  • Reduce software development costs for Animikii’s partners.
  • Host through Animikii or via on-premises service.

These are just a few of the high-level things that we are working to achieve. This list will grow and change as we better understand the needs of our potential partners. Our development approach is very agile and iterative, and while there are some universal data problems created by colonialism, every community has suffered different impacts and their data needs will reflect this. It’s always been our approach to listen to our partners and work with them to solve their problems through technology, and Niiwin won’t be any different.

The Vision

What we are attempting to do is both bold and ambitious. Like corn’s central role in the relationship of 3 Sisters agriculture, our aim is that Niiwin will provide just one of many frameworks needed to help Indigenous Data Sovereignty flourish.

Overall, what makes Niiwin unique is that at its core it’s an empowerment tool that supports our partners and the communities they represent in their efforts to record, store, analyze and share information. In doing so, they become better stewards of their own data. The major overall goal of this product is to reduce administrative burdens and allow for more internal control. In doing so, organizations won’t be stuck waiting for the next funding cycle to update their software or make large changes to the information that they need to operate and make informed decisions. Reducing administrative costs is one of our key goals for Niiwin. 

Control and access of data is essential to Indigenous Data Sovereignty. Data are often housed in large-scale, sometimes international, databases that don’t allow communities or the organizations that support them to make changes or updates to their own data. Often these data are locked into these systems and Indigenous organizations need to beg outsiders for permission to access their own data. It’s important that communities are able to both understand their data and respond to relevant opportunities. Niiwin is premised on the guiding principle that Indigenous communities must exercise sovereignty over their data.

For First Nations, Inuit and Métis, it’s of vital importance that their data are at the very least hosted in Canada, if not their own territory, reserve, or community.

Animikii’s data centre partners deliver Canada-based hosting, however it’s possible that the Niiwin data could be hosted on a virtual server in a well established First Nations server farm such as those at the Membertou Data Centre, or one’s own community if they have the required IT hardware, infrastructure, and security.

It is our overall goal that Niiwin will have the capability to decolonize data and information management for Indigenous Nations, organizations, communities and entrepreneurs. As a business opportunity for our partners, Niiwin has the capability to drive economic growth in Indigenous communities in ways that resource extraction and development never will.

We will deem Niiwin to be a success if it meets the following goals:

  • Acts as an economic driver for Indigenous Communities (aligning with company vision/goals/values);
  • Brings Indigenous digital innovation to mainstream market (social and cultural shifts in global society); and 
  • Creates positive examples of Indigenous-owned (or Community-owned) enterprises that operate in mainstream and Indigenous markets.

By bringing Indigenous technology to the mainstream market, it is our ambition that Animikii and our Niiwin partners will help deconstruct colonial attitudes of unsustainable extraction, and promote sustainable Indigenous digital innovations that will help provide a better future for everyone in this place that we all call home.

What’s Next?

This article concludes our series on Decolonizing Digital - a dive into Indigenous Data Sovereignty, what it means and what it could lead to.

If you’d like to know more, check out the links spread throughout these articles. They are the original sources for much of this discussion, and if you are hungry for more check out these academic summaries on the current state of Indigenous Data Sovereignty. They speak to what we talked about here but with more technical and academic depth. For journalists looking to explore Indigenous Data Sovereignty in their own work, we recommend this resource.

We want to give thanks to all the Elders, sisters, brothers, cousins, faces yet to come, plant, animal, and other non-human relations that guide us through our lives. We put these words to the screen, and created a lot of zeros and ones in the process, but we’re not alone in this endeavor. Indigenous Peoples are still here, we’re still strong, and you’ll be seeing a lot more of what we’ve always done. 

Nya:węh, Miigwetch, Hyčqa, Hiy Hiy, Marsi — Thanks for reading and we look forward to working with all of you to decolonize digital in all its forms.

Decolonizing Digital Series:

  1. CONTEXTUALIZING INDIGENOUS DATA SOVEREIGNTY
  2. EMPOWERING INDIGENEITY THROUGH DATA SOVEREIGNTY
  3. DATA’S ROLE IN INDIGENOUS DATA SOVEREIGNTY
  4. THE FUTURE IS INDIGENOUS
  5. OUR DATA IS OUR RIGHT
  6. DEVELOPING INDIGENOUS DIGITAL INNOVATION

Subscribe below to follow this series and any other articles we publish to our blog.

March 17, 2020

Share story