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Indigenous Knowledge, Open Data and Connecting to the International Research Data Community

September 5, 2016 By Peter Pulsifer,

By  Peter Pulsifer and Colleen Strawhacker, National Snow and Ice Data Center

Exchange for Local Observations and Knowlege of the Arctic (ELOKA) project (NSF Award 1513438, Arctic Social Sciences Program, AON)

Indigenous knowledge holders of the Arctic and their communities are representing and using their knowledge in new ways.  At the same time there is an increasing recognition by non-Indigenous researchers, policy makers and the general public of the value of this knowledge.  Consequently, we are seeing many activities that result in the collection and documentation of Indigenous observations and knowledge.  

IK has Many definitions.  One definition is:

knowledge and know-how accumulated across generations, and renewed by each new generation, which guide human societies in their innumerable interactions with their surrounding environment.

While Indigenous Knowledge and ways of knowing have existed for millennia, digital technologies and data sharing are relatively new, necessitating careful and thoughtful approaches to managing and displaying this information. There are many questions and some concerns around the most appropriate ways to represent this knowledge outside of its original cultural and geographic context. As alluded in our previous blog about social science data, the focus on “open data” has serious implications when it comes to Indigenous Knowledge.  What are the limits to that openness? How can communities share while maintaining a level of control that is appropriate for any given usage situation?  

The Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge in the Arctic (ELOKA, has been working in partnership with a number of Arctic communities to create data, information and knowledge representations tailored to these needs and has extensive experience in achieving balance between the desire for data to remain open, but protecting and respecting the Knowledge that belongs to Indigenous Arctic communities.  These products include community websites, atlases documenting important places on the landscape, and databases where Arctic residents can upload their local observations.

Building relationships and collaborations with Indigenous communities has been a major activity for the ELOKA team, in recognition that the indigenous communities should be driving the products that ELOKA creates. 

For example, the Yup’ik Atlas was developed under the leadership of Calista Education and Culture with a strong sense of ownership by community (see and The community makes the decisions and drive the design with support from ELOKA. Starting in 2015 and continuing in summer of 2016, Indigenous youth interns have been adding and modifying the data. Another example is SIZONet, which provides an online interface to a database that archives and shares these important sea ice, weather and wildlife observations gathered by the community. The community drove the design of the user interface, including priority on the use of graphic icons, as well as the development of the “Use Agreement” that must be accepted before accessing data, providing a level of security for the database containing the local observations.

While ELOKA’s main priority is to build partnerships with the Indigenous Communities that are based on respect, responsibility and recipocity, we continue to meet these challenges by engaging in the wider international community centered around data and cyberinfrastructure.   To contribute to the dialogue, ELOKA staff has been working closely with the organizers of International Data Week, an  event that “will bring together data scientists, researchers, industry leaders, entrepreneurs, policy makers and data stewards to explore how best to exploit the data revolution to improve our knowledge and benefit society through data-driven research and  innovation” during the second week of September in Denver.  Below is a schedule of events that are specific to the challenges and considerations of working with Indigenous Knowledge, and we will be tweeting actively about the events at #IKatIDW for those who cannot attend. These events, as well as other ELOKA activities, aim to positively contribute to a movement being led by Indigenous people of the Arctic that will see all aspects of Indigenous data production, research, and knowledge under their authority, resulting in Information Sovereignty.  Over the coming years, ELOKA will be prioritizing partnerships and activities that move toward that goal.

Tuesday, September 10th - SciDataCon

8:30 am - 12:00 pm

  • SciDataCon Double Session: ‘Linking Local and Indigenous Communities with Researchers for Improving Access and Discovery of Ethically Open Data and Knowledge,’ Organized by Julie Friddell, Peter Pulsifer, Colleen Strawhacker, and Dana Church


1:30 pm - 3:00 pm

  • SciDataCon Talk: ‘Best Practice in Managing Indigenous Knowledge’ (Heidi McCann) in ‘Challenges and Opportunities Moving Forward for The Management and Curation of Physical Objects in the Digital Era’


4:00 pm – 5:30 pm

  • SciDataCon Talk: ‘Should Data be Shared?: Situated Openness and Struggles over Indigenous Peoples’ Knowledge, Climate Change, and Research Contracts in South Africa’ (Cath Traynor) in ‘Data Sharing in a Development Context: The experience of the IRDC Data Sharing Pilot track’


Wednesday, September 11th - International Data Forum

9:00 am

  • Welcome Ceremony


2:30 pm – 4:00 pm

  • Panel Discussion: Responsible Openness featuring Christopher Horsethief


7:30 - 9:30 pm

  • IDF Reception for informal discussion


Thursday, September 12th - Research Data Alliance Plenary

2:30 - 3:00 pm

  • Indigenous Data and Information Sovereignty: Making Open Data work for Indigenous peoples Breakout session, sponsored in part by ELOKA


6:30 - 8:30 pm

  • RDA Reception for Informal Discussion (6:30 – 8:30pm)