Does data deepen democracy?

Posted on 18 Dec 2023

By Kristi Mansfield


In the digital age, data has the potential to both empower and endanger democracy, writes Seer Data CEO Kristi Mansfield.

The relationship between endangerment and empowerment at the grassroots is intricate, and communities often find themselves questioning the authenticity of information, their suspicions heightened by the implications of AI-generated content and algorithm-driven narratives.

The cornerstone of a thriving democracy is trust, both among individuals and within larger institutions. Herein lies the challenge – the widening data divide and the need for solutions to restore trust and reinforce democratic values.

Introducing the data sovereignty movement

There’s a movement taking place across Australia where communities are increasingly using data and analysis to help determine and improve their own futures.

This is the essence of the data sovereignty movement – where more and more communities are calling on governments to release data so they can be empowered to make changes at the local level.

As communities begin to recognise the power data can give them, many in government – including Federal Treasurer Jim Chalmers – are beginning to see value in, and actively encourage, more place-based activities and solutions.

The treasurer’s recent Working Future White Paper has highlighted the power of community decision-making and capability-building to support the delivery of effective place-based services. The paper specifically called out the need to build capacity to implement local solutions, including by providing greater access to data to inform local priorities. 

As we are seeing only a fraction of the data that could be provided, it is crucial that more data is shared to strengthen trust between citizens, communities, governments and service providers.

Seer Data CEO Kristi Mansfield
Seer Data CEO Kristi Mansfield.

How data sovereignty can work in practice

First Nations people have long governed Indigenous data, as safeguarding information, stories and knowledge is critical for the survival of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures. Data plays an important role in supporting self-determination in Bourke, where Maranguka, a model of Indigenous self-governance, is guided by the Bourke Tribal Council.

Here data sovereignty takes the form of data access, control, custodianship, ownership, relevance, storytelling and accountability for First Nations people.

Since 2016, Seer Data and Analytics has worked with grassroots community organisations and First Nations organisations to address the data divide that exists between these communities and governments or businesses, empowering communities with data to make decisions, solve problems and support community-led change.

Our platform enables safe sharing of restricted government and business data with First Nations organisations.

"When we make data accessible and easy to understand, we start to support local decisions that can really improve outcomes for communities."

Improving outcomes in health, education and the justice system

As the data sovereignty movement continues to gain momentum, tangible examples of change are emerging. Maranguka Community Hub, in Bourke, partnered with Just Reinvest NSW in 2013 to develop a “proof of concept” for justice reinvestment – a project that has been Australia’s lighthouse initiative for community- and data-led place-based change.

The Maranguka initiative remains the largest data-driven community-led project in Australia.

The Palimaa data platform that arose from the Maranguka project, powered by Seer Data, facilitates data access, sharing and storytelling, putting the Bourke community in control.

The platform enables the sharing of data between 15 data contributors, including the NSW departments of Health, Education, Social Services, and Communities & Justice, NSW Police, and services and not-for-profits operating in Bourke.

The project has resulted in reduced crime, particularly among young people, increased safety, savings of millions of dollars for the Department of Justice, and new economic investment for Bourke.

Similar initiatives now exist in communities across Australia, including the Kawuma Gap Closer Program in Wonnarua Nation, the Gladstone Region Wellbeing Data Hub, the Connected Beginnings Program, jointly delivered by the Department of Health and Aged Care and the Department of Education, and the Cairns South Together initiative, delivered in partnership with Mission Australia.

These examples are testament to data’s powerful ability to nurture and deepen democracy, address local challenges, support and engage decision makers and ultimately drive community-led, place-based change.

When we make data accessible and easy to understand, we start to support local decisions that can really improve outcomes for communities. At the same time, we build data capability, literacy, confidence and trust between governments and citizens.

Kristi Mansfield is CEO of Seer Data.

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