Common Code

Building tech with indigenous communities

By Thomasin Abraham and Caleb Moses on 22 Jun, 2020

2 min. read

Due to continuing disenfranchisement and inequality of opportunity, indigenous peoples form a small minority of the global tech work-force. These same communities, wanting to make use of tech to solve problems or help lessen those inequalities, find themselves faced with the need to work with developers and companies who may have little to no understanding of their culture and customs.


There are interesting insights emerging from discussion around cross-cultural partnerships in scientific research. Common themes are community engagement being critical for success, and ensuring ownership of cultural information remains with the community. These findings are guided and supported by principles publicised in statements such as The Mataatua Declaration on Cultural and Intellectual Property Rights of Indigenous Peoples (1993), which can also inform tech projects.

The Mataatua Declaration has a number of recommendations that are relevant to both indigenous peoples and non-indigenous collaborators. One with particular relevance to tech is

2.1. Recognise that indigenous peoples are the guardians of their customary knowledge and have the right to protect and control dissemination of that knowledge.

As The Mataatua Declaration notes, indigenous peoples have a “commonality of experiences relating to the exploitation of their cultural and intellectual property”. This experience has been described as a kind of scientific colonialism—researchers and governments feeling it is a public right to take knowledge, wisdom and data from indigenous communities. There is an assumption of ‘public record’ and free for all that is at odds with indigenous peoples’ ethical and moral rights to safeguard and control their information.

Guardianship of community knowledge can manifest in the need for indigenous control of culturally significant data. This has an impact on tech development in a number of ways, including infrastructure requirements and the open sourcing of code. Challenges include the under-representation of indigenous peoples in tech spaces.

There have always been infrastructure trade offs to make. In recent years, cloud computing and the management of physical hardware and networks by large providers have become standard. Due to economies of scale, these services are substantially cheaper than projects maintaining their own physical servers. However, allowing cultural information to be managed by a third party has to be weighed alongside cost savings and maintainability.

Open sourcing code is another decision with implications that are not always obvious to developers. This is the practice of making code freely available for use and modification. There is often support and insistence on open source in tech spaces. However, this practice exposes information that belongs to indigenous communities to potential exploitation and commercialisation. Their under-representation means that people from the community are less able to make use of that open sourced code, with future beneficiaries of the work likely to be non-indigenous.

Operating in indigenous spaces is a skill that few people have, and has the potential to offer significant advantage to an organisation even if they don’t retain ownership of the code they write, or the infrastructure built for the project. Engagement and input from partners ensure outputs of the project are fit for purpose, and contribute to the community which the project intends to serve. Fostering an environment of open communication and critical feedback is important in a project where western tech frameworks are at play with different cultural values. Indigenous partners need to be considered collaborators as well as explicit stakeholders.

Effective cross-cultural partnerships are ultimately about the sharing of power, and ought to be measured by the extent to which power is placed in indigenous hands. This ideally involves technical engagement and ownership from developers or tech workers within the community. However, sometimes it necessitates helping people into an industry they have been blocked from by inequitable distribution of education, experience and opportunity.

Cross-cultural partnerships rely on a foundation of basic empathy, openness and a genuine desire to engage with different knowledge systems and customs. With positive outcomes for everyone involved some incredible things will, and have been built.

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