Data collected about Māori people and resources is a valuable asset — it can be a powerful mechanism for informing and driving significant change in communities. 

But that will only happen if Māori are able to exercise authority over data and treat it as a taonga, as Ngapera Riley tells us here.


There are many types of data collected in Aotearoa. There’s data about our country, like our population and demographics, housing quality, and GDP. There’s data about our land and water, like E. coli levels at beaches and land use. There’s aggregate data about groups of people, like how many children have asthma, the median income, or unemployment numbers. And there’s data about individuals, like health records, credit card usage, or even our DNA.

Some of this data is collected by the government (which usually means it’s of good quality), some is collected by businesses both within and outside of Aotearoa, and some is collected by non-profit groups and NGOs.

One type of data in Aotearoa has some unique considerations: Māori data. Māori data refers to information produced by or about Māori, and about the environments we have relationships with.

Māori data is subject to the rights articulated in the Treaty of Waitangi and the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, to which Aotearoa New Zealand is a signatory.

Why is Māori data important?

All data is important because it can help us to understand our world and our community, to measure and monitor the impacts of the actions we take, and to assess our community’s wellbeing. Collecting more and better-quality data can help us to understand and solve issues, and to support our community’s aspirations.

Māori view data as a living taonga (treasure) with immense strategic value. It’s an important tool in understanding our whenua and our tangata whenua. It helps us answer questions like how many people whakapapa to our iwi and where they live, how many Māori live within Aotearoa, and how many live or were born overseas.

How are our tamariki doing in school? How many of us speak te reo Māori? Is our land healthy? Are we healthy? Are we likely to own homes or businesses, and what factors might change that? These are important questions that can help us change the futures of our people.

Decades of research have shown us that different ethnic groups around the world not only face different challenges, but also have different ideas about wellbeing and success. Centering those ideas and needs leads to different and more successful approaches to change. But when we can’t get access to the data needed to try those different approaches and measure their effectiveness, then our needs aren’t met.

We know that, for years, data has been used to inform narratives and policy decisions about Māori but without our input or our values at heart. That’s why it’s so important for us to collect and gain access to good quality data for Māori. As more data is made available, how can we ensure our information is protected? Or made available for use?

The rise of the Māori data sovereignty movement

These issues and opportunities gave rise to the Māori data sovereignty movement, Te Mana Raraunga, in 2016. Led by concerned Māori data experts, academics, and leaders, the movement aims to minimise the harm caused by data collected about Māori without their input, guidance, and governance; to protect traditional Māori knowledge; and to embrace the opportunities that data provides to create a better future for Māori, led by Māori.

At its core, Māori data sovereignty is about ensuring we think deeply and critically about who collects data, why it’s collected, how we ensure that it’s safe for Māori, and that Māori aren’t excluded from its benefits. As with most Māori viewpoints, it’s not about control, it’s about care. In short, treat Māori data like the taonga it is.

Some of the things Te Mana Raraunga advocates for include:

  • Better quality data about and for Māori.
  • Māori determining what data is collected about and for Māori, and by whom.
  • Important information like whakapapa, te reo Māori, mātauranga Māori (traditional knowledge), and whenua information remaining in the hands of the iwi, hapū, whānau, and individuals it belongs to.
  • Ensuring Māori oversight on the collection and use of sensitive information about Māori, like prison and social welfare data to ensure it’s not used to discriminate against Māori.
  • Ensuring data about Māori, including aggregate data, is collected, stored, and published in ways that take into account Māori cultural and economic needs.
  • Empowering iwi and hapū to collect and manage their own data collection in ways that meet their needs.
  • Creating opportunities for Māori businesses to develop technology and services for Māori people with Māori data.

The laws that govern us

Access and management of information held about us is governed by a series of laws, including the Privacy Act, which ensures individuals can access and correct information about themselves whether it’s held by a private or public sector organisation.

Government agencies are also subject to the Official Information Act and the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act, which ensure all citizens can access the information, aggregate data and documents that our government uses to make decisions about our country.

Our current report card

We’ve come a long way, and yet we still have a way to go to meet the ideals advocated by Te Mana Raraunga. We should be proud of the progress but keep pushing for more and better. If we can get good principles and practices in place now, as our need and the amount of data grows, we’ll be better placed as a nation to navigate the future.

Many government agencies have engaged with the data sovereignty principles, asked for help and guidance with their data, and begun to improve consultation, coverage, collection, and storage.

This is important work as the government holds a large amount of data about Māori that is used in decision-making by both the government and by Māori. It’s vital that this data continues to be accessible to Māori and that the quality keeps improving. We need this data to reflect an accurate picture of Māori wellbeing so we can make our own decisions and hold the government accountable — but we also recognise that without the government collecting this data, we’d struggle to access this information.

Improvements in this space have contributed to a rise in Māori-built technology tools, which help ensure more Māori can access this important information.

But Māori data is also collected by other organisations, from universities to banks to phone companies to retail businesses. It’s hard to tell how much of this data exists, because these organisations aren’t required to share this with Māori. It’s mostly inaccessible, cutting our people off from the insights and benefits that might come from this data. Smaller amounts are also held by community groups like iwi, churches, and sports groups.

What comes next?

To encourage best practice, organisations could consider the following:

  • Treat data as a taonga, approach it with due diligence and duty of care.
  • Consult with Māori to guide your policy on your data collection, storage, and access practices. This should identify what data is and isn’t being collected by and for Māori benefit, and whether data collection, storage, and access meets Māori Data Sovereignty principles.
  • Where appropriate, ensure safe, open access is provided to data that could benefit Māori, particularly data about Māori.
  • Identify whether your agency is (or should be) collecting Māori-specific data.
  • Identify whether the data your agency collects is useful to Māori. For example, many decisions are made at iwi or hapū level, but ethnicity information is either absent or only collected about Māori as a whole.
  • How easy is it for Māori to access this information? Do you publish it on your website, or with Stats NZ, or with Figure.NZ, or do they need to make a special request? If so, is the process and availability of data clearly communicated?
  • How long is the data stored?
  • Who is the data shared with and is this clearly communicated and consented to?
  • Is access to and protection of the data reliant on offshore technology, and what impact does this have on sovereignty and access?

Commercial and non-profit organisations should also consider asking themselves these questions and start thinking about data as a taonga that can benefit our communities. After all, we all live here in Aotearoa thanks to the principles of Te Tiriti.

We should all care about Māori data sovereignty

Too often, we forget to stop and think about the decisions we’re making, especially when it comes to collection of information and the wide-ranging impacts of that.

The Māori data sovereignty principles encourage us to pause and reflect on our past decisions and truly think about the impacts on some of our most vulnerable members of society. Understanding and assessing the risk and opportunity to Māori benefits all of us.

If we get Māori data sovereignty right, the benefits of more thoughtful and deliberate data collection, storage, protection, and sharing benefit everyone. As individuals and communities, we’re more engaged with and aware of the data held about us and how it’s used, which can help us to make better decisions.

Would we choose to get that DNA test if we stopped and considered that our DNA is shared by our whānau and hapū, and that the decision affects them too? As organisations, the self-reflection and honesty required to answer those questions gives us confidence in the social licence we have to collect and share data, and in the integrity of that data.

Data is a taonga. It’s something that people gift us, and that we gift to others as we go about our daily lives. It’s valuable information that evolves, grows, and will change over time, and it is of strategic importance for everyone. It’s my dream that we’ll be able to use it to build the best possible future for all of us in Aotearoa.


Ngapera Riley, (Te Arawa) is the CEO of Figure.NZ and a member of Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori Data Sovereignty Network. She advocates for peaceful, positive change, human rights, and Indigenous rights. She is passionate about helping communities find and use data to help them make change.

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