Redefining data for community

At the forefront of community-led data revolution is a small but mighty team of First Nations Central Coasters that comprise the Ngiyang Wayama Data Network. Driven by proud Wiradjuri/Ngunnawal woman Corrine Hodson, Ngiyang Wayama grew from within the community in response to a clear need for data; namely, up to date information, strengths-based statistics and the end goal of true Indigenous data sovereignty.

Watch our interview with Ngiyang Wayama members Corinne Hodson and Jacob Smeaton.

As well as being a Ngiyang Wayama member, Corrine sits in the role of Community Engagement and Partnerships for Barang Regional Alliance, the Aboriginal not-for-profit that champions the people of Darkinjung Land on the Central Coast of NSW. Barang Regional Alliance is one of 8 regional alliances funded under Empowered Communities, the federal government initiative that invests in regional place-based decision making to reform Indigenous agendas, policies and programs.

Barang – deriving from local Darkinjung language word, meaning tomorrow – is unique in that, in addition to the federal government framework, it is the only site in Australia that has also secured the support of state government through the ‘local decision making’ initiative, which works to promote local Aboriginal people as community decision-makers. Embracing the concept of community in a multitude of ways, Barang partners with many, including community members, elders, men’s and women’s groups, businesses and business owners and organisations that work in the Indigenous space for the purpose driving change from the ground up and creating a brighter future for the Indigenous people of the region.

Identifying the need for data and community voice

Through her work with Barang Regional Alliance, Corrine quickly formed a somewhat unexpected relationship with data. She and her other community members knew of great depth and diversity within their region, but could see the data was skewed and/or only scratched the surface of true story that reflects their people. Census data claims an estimated population of around 12.5 thousand for the region, but Corrine acknowledges, like many other Aboriginal communities in Australia, population data is under reported in her region. The community estimate the population is more likely to be 15-17 thousand, conservatively, and within that one of the largest proportion of young people, with the region boasting a median age of 20 years in comparison to the state-wide NSW median age of 40 years.

“The Darkinjung region is classified as the fastest growing region in Australia and population growth is expected to continue here because of the close proximity to Sydney and Newcastle and the more affordable housing” Corrine says.

With a social work background, Corrine acknowledges gaps in her data expertise but that has not slowed her down in progressing an innovative and exciting data network for her region.

“We needed to work towards finding the views, the voices and the opinions of our community” Corrine says.

In response to this need, Corrine developed multiple surveys to capture accurate data for the region. The surveys have rolled out year on year, Naidoc to Naidoc, with the aim of collating the data, integrating it into systems and presenting it back to the community. What came of this was game-changing for the Darkinjung region; there was finally data that reflected their truth. Regional statistics and demographic data to better understand their place and their people, but also, a strengths-based narrative that celebrated the region’s high rate of home ownership, large cohort of teens finishing Year 12 and other unique community highlights.

“I wanted people to understand positive things about our community, not just the negative end of the spectrum stuff” Corrine said.

The capturing of this data (and the ongoing commitment to continually capture data) allows the community to determine their priorities, make plans to address their challenges and live the truth of real community-led decision making. The community were unanimous; young people were to be their ongoing priority, with culture, health, well-being and employment key issues for the regions young people. Born from these narratives, Barang committed to prioritising the empowerment of young Aboriginal people, holding youth summits, focussing on youth decision-making and identifying and championing young leaders, such as Barang Project Officer, Jacob Smeaton.

Ngiyang Wayama: coming together and talking

Swimming in the data but understanding the need for more, Aboriginal data network, Ngiyang Wayama began. Completely unfunded, the community initiative is fuelled by the passion of its members such as Corrine and Jacob and embodies the magic of community connection; the network name, Ngiyang Wayama, was gifted by elders and means ‘coming together and talking’. With a clear focus on the stories behind the data and Indigenous data sovereignty, Ngiyang Wayama grew, bringing together community members, elders and custodians, developing partnerships with think tanks and engaging supporting partners in a process that determined priorities and set out terms of reference.

Throughout this process, Ngiyang Wayama has developed 4 working groups: demystifying data, data discovery, data visualisation and data champions. Each working group has passionate volunteer base to drive each groups individual mission; overarching these is the shared goal of fostering data capability and cultural authority in the community. An innovative pilot project sees 1.5-hour data upskill sessions offered to the community to promote data knowledge and train community members to be able to confidently present data and remove the need for “experts” – acknowledging that the experts are already within this exceptional community.

Akin to other communities on data driven missions, Ngiyang Wayama recognise the need to develop shared measurement – to develop their own baseline to collate data collectively.

“In addition to the data we are forced to collect to justify funding, we will start to make reference to our own community data sets – the vision for us is regional data sovereignty,” said Corrine.

The communities of the Darkinjung region concur, with Corrine reporting that the momentum is strong, support for data is solid, the community are invested and Ngiyang Wayama are helping people to understand sharing data.

“Our people now understand a strengths-based narrative in our community – they recognise where we are ‘exceeding the gap’ and rejecting the deficit-based data of old” Corrine said.

According to young community leader, Ngiyang Wayama member and Kerrupjmara man, Jacob Smeaton, one of the key concepts that underpin the work of the data network and empowering community voice is redefining and simplifying data.

“Aboriginal people have been telling stories for thousands of years. Data is more than numbers, it’s information – it’s stories. By simplifying data, people can understand and relate to the anecdotal data as stories” Jacob said.

Jacob echoes the words of Corrine and asserts the need to give community voice; he refers to the concept of reciprocity, where the community gives to young people and young people give back to community.

“Capturing community voice for Ngiyang Wayama means consultation. In this way, we focus on turning back paternalistic government and cultivating the power to govern ourselves” Jacob said.