Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Data Archive


Why do we need protocols?

ATSIDA provides a trusted, secure digital repository for the long term preservation of and access to digital research data relating to Australia’s Indigenous peoples, some of which will have been ‘born digital’ while the remainder will have been digitised from original records in physical formats comprising documents, photographs, films and other analogue materials but also some unusual formats for research materials such as bark paintings. The data concerns the languages and culture, society and all other aspects of the Indigenous peoples including Indigenous Australian traditional knowledge and, sometimes, personal, private and sacred information.

In the past only a small fragment of documentation produced by researchers has been available to other researchers, students, policymakers and the communities who have actively participated in research projects. Much of the material has tended to remain in researchers’ offices, often eventually lost, unusable due to format obsolescence or destroyed by design or inadvertence. There are obvious benefits to be gained from preserving and making more widely available the products and working materials assembled during research projects that are usually expensive in both cost and the time of researchers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants. In more recent times, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander participants expect not only to play a significant role in directing the course of research projects but also to be provided with copies of research products. By making digital preservation copies of research data and providing various levels of access to them, ATSIDA addresses these concerns and also provides a platform to stimulate new research ventures and insights.

In seeking to fulfil its functions, ATSIDA recognises that it sits at a complex intersection of rights and interests that affect all of its constituents – researchers, holding institutions and, most importantly, Indigenous Australian people and communities. In preserving datasets derived from a range of social science research methods (including quantitative and qualitative research) and allowing the reuse of identified parts of the data, ATSIDA seeks to effectively manage the various rights and interests at play. These rights and interests will be more fully unpacked below, but it is instructive to consider here the complex nature of the intersection. For a particular dataset, the right to place cultural constraints on the reproduction and circulation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander knowledge it contains and the moral rights pertaining to appropriately authorised and faithful reproduction of artistic works, for example, might be central for an Indigenous community. For the depositor/researcher, the right to publish their research results, to be acknowledged for their original research, and to set access conditions that reflect the wishes of those whose trust they have gained might be central. For ATSIDA, the rights to archive the dataset (preservation, access) and make it available to other researchers, repatriate it to the community and possibly publish it on the World Wide Web might be central. Clearly there are a number of competing rights and interests at work, and underpinning this process is the importance of trust. The protocols serve both to provide guidance and to allay potential concerns of constituents that their rights and interests are being ignored.

There are two components to ATSIDA. Full datasets are held securely in digital form at the Australian National University’s Supercomputer Facility (ANUSF) in Canberra. For this component, the protocols guide the deposit, access, and reuse of data. The second component of ATSIDA is a community website that provides access to material identified by depositors for repatriation to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities and which may offer public access to selected datasets or elements of them. This web site, hosted by UTSeScholarship, is effectively a digital keeping place. This site addresses the often encountered problem of the dispersal of repatriated hard copies within communities and the need for repeated repatriation to provide materials for community cultural activities. The website provides instant and ongoing access to relevant communities. For this component the protocols guide the repatriation and access process.

The protocols were developed in association with the ATSIDA Reference Group –a high level reference committee consisting of senior Indigenous Australian academics and researchers on Indigenous issues. The protocols are also significantly informed by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Information and Resource Network (ATSILIRN) Protocols (1995) and a subsequent review and revision (2004-2008).

It is important to bear in mind that while the protocols provide a framework to guide action in this complex domain, they are intended to be flexible rather than rigidly prescriptive. Accordingly, datasets are processed by ATSIDA on a case by case basis in close consultation with depositors. A secondary document details the processes and governs the implementation of the ATSIDA Protocols.