Nothing about us, without us: Indigenous data sovereignty

The Team

Mitacs Accelerate intern Dr. Moneca Sinclaire, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Manitoba.

The Challenge

Many Indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and face barriers accessing technology that supports them during this critical time, including access to high-speed or stable Internet connections.

The Solution

The Our Data Indigenous app, complete with connectivity packs, was developed to support Indigenous communities through COVID-19 in a way that protects the sovereignty of their data and helps them make informed decisions for their residents.

The Outcome

While initially meant to support Indigenous communities through the COVID-19 pandemic, this unique app can be used to collect relevant data for any community looking to better understand and respond to the needs of its residents.

Postdoctoral researcher from the University of Manitoba introduces unique app to Indigenous communities that allows them to own the data they collect

Dr. Moneca Sinclaire is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation bordering the Saskatchewan River in Northern Manitoba. Having recently completed a postdoctorate under Professor Stephane McLachlan in the department of Environment and Geography at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Dr. Sinclaire has been an integral member of the team responsible for Our Data Indigenous, a one-of-a-kind mobile app that collects important survey data that Indigenous communities can use to address health and wellness concerns.

The app was originally developed in partnership with Los Angeles-based independent software consultant Craig Dietrich, Dr. Shanna Lorenz, and the Integral Ecology Group (IEG) to support Indigenous communities in their response to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Our Data Indigenous has proven to be helpful in many other ways.

Beyond assisting Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by the pandemic in navigating their response to the crisis, the app is useful in collecting relevant survey data for any community seeking to better understand and respond to the needs and wellbeing of its residents.

“Nothing about us without us”

What makes Our Data Indigenous particularly unique, however, is that it allows the communities that use it to have complete ownership and sovereignty over their data, a rare occurrence in our data-driven world. This “nothing about us, without us” philosophy is what drives Dr. Sinclaire’s important work.

“Due to past historical events, many of the chiefs and council members have questions about who’s going to own the data and what’s going to be done with it,” she explains.

Dr. Sinclaire operates under the principle that no research be conducted, or decisions be made without the full participation and consent of the affected group. Without this reciprocity, science and research remain hierarchical.

Dr. Sinclaire says that “a big part of our role is to assure communities that we’re trying to do research differently, not from the same Western perspective, but research that is for Indigenous people and by Indigenous people.”

As an outreach coordinator on the project, Dr. Sinclaire introduces Indigenous communities to the Our Data Indigenous app and data analysis training so that the information collected can be used to improve decision-making at a local level, not only as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic but also when it comes to long-term goals and objectives, all within complete community control.

Following the principles of OCAP — ownership, control, access, and possession — the app ensures that communities retain ownership of their data while also empowering them to decide what information is collected and how it will be used.

“We still have a lot of communities dealing with flood damage, a lack of running water or high teen suicide rates. Now that we have a tool that allows them to ask, ‘What can we do about that?’, it gives me hope that things will begin to change,” says Sinclaire.

Internet as essential service

The lack of consistent and reliable access to high-speed or stable Internet connections is an ongoing issue in many Indigenous communities. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, this lack of access was already limiting opportunities for education, work, and economic development. For an app like Our Data Indigenous to be effective, it was evident that the connectivity gap needed to be addressed.

Recognizing this challenge, Our Data Indigenous has produced a valuable solution: communities choosing to use the app are provided with a connectivity package including a small generator, router, laptop, and tablet, as well as the personalized support of a dedicated researcher.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought forth what is considered essential, and it can be argued that a reliable Internet connection falls squarely into the category of “essential service.” Beyond being essential, however, Dr. Sinclaire asserts that consistent Internet access has the potential to “open the door to many possibilities with future research projects for communities.”

Lived experience

Part of what has helped shape project outcomes for Our Data Indigenous is Dr. Sinclaire’s lived experience as a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation. As the project’s community outreach coordinator, she has played a key role in research processes and outreach strategies when connecting with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities throughout the last year. Her knowledge has helped adapt the project to address the unique needs and priorities of each community.

“When I go into communities, I already have the understanding and the knowledge of what people are going through. I know our history,” says Dr. Sinclaire, “And I just allow people to take that time to stop and give them space to be able to think about the answers that they want to give for the questions.”

Dr. Sinclaire credits the success of Our Data Indigenous in part to Mitacs and its assistance in finding a qualified industry partner.

“Sometimes when you work with industry, they have their own agenda. With IEG, we have a partner who truly understands that what we’re trying to do is create autonomy for people,” she said. “They really supported our work by asking questions differently, in ways that were in line with what we’re trying to do. It was a refreshing departure from what I’ve been used to throughout my career.”

Dr. Sinclaire was recently honoured with a Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — Indigenous, a prize that was awarded during a ceremony held in Ottawa on November 23, 2021, where she expressed the importance of Indigenous-led approaches to participatory technology design and their potential to be useful in many other industries.

Thanks to her work, Our Data Indigenous is now being used by nine Indigenous communities across Manitoba and British Columbia, as well as in Puerto Rico and soon in Ecuador.

Learn more about how Mitacs is celebrating Indigenous innovation in Canada: 

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from valued partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, the Government of Saskatchewan, and the Government of Yukon for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country. 

Do you have a business challenge that could benefit from a research solution? If so, contact Mitacs today to discuss partnership opportunities:

Mitacs Team
Mitacs Team

Mitacs’s website content is created by people throughout our organization, united in their passion for innovation and eager to share their perspectives with others in the innovation ecosystem.