Enhancing Indigenous data sovereignty in environmental decision-making

October 11th, 2021

We contributed to a project to help understand might we design and use digital technologies from an ethical position that prioritises Indigenous perspectives and knowledge practices.

Over half of Australia’s total land and sea area has been returned to the control of its Traditional Owners. However, Indigenous land managers are now up against many complex challenges, including climate change and invasive and threatened species, both of which are very present reminders of Australia’s colonial past.

Drones offer exciting technical possibilities to tackle some of these complex environmental challenges head-on. This includes producing accurate and precise monitoring data across vast areas (such as wetlands), and the visualisation of hard-to-reach locations (including those inhabited by crocodiles).

There has correspondingly been a rapid uptake of drones and other technologies across northern Australia by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous land managers. For Indigenous land managers, drones can enable faster decisions to be made about growing threats to Country. Importantly, they can also allow Indigenous land managers to collect data themselves rather than relying on outside experts. This is sometimes referred to as ‘Indigenous data sovereignty’, or ‘the right of Indigenous peoples to determine the means by which data about or related to Indigenous people is collected, accessed, interpreted, analysed, managed, shared and reused’.1

Ryan Barrowei teaching his nephew how to use the drone to see Country after cool fire management at Jarrangbarnmi.

Ensuring technology can be introduced responsibly

Despite their promising utility and wide interest, there has been limited work done to make sure technologies likes drones and artificial intelligence (AI) can be introduced to Indigenous lands responsibly, and past incursions have raised some profound questions: how might we design and use digital technologies from an ethical position that prioritises Indigenous perspectives and knowledge practices?

Through a National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Northern Australia Hub project, CSIRO’s Responsible Innovation Future Science Platform (RI FSP) researchers worked with other researchers from CSIRO, Charles Darwin University and the University of Western Australia, Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers, to make sure the introduction of drones to Jawoyn Country was ethical at Jarrangbarnmi in southern Kakadu National Park. Jarrangbarnmi is jointly managed by Jawoyn Traditional Owners and Kakadu rangers.

Dr Jennifer Macdonald, a researcher from Charles Darwin University who is supported by the RI FSP, was one of the team involved in a two-day workshop at Jarrangbarnmi that was led by Traditional Owners to develop protocols for using drones responsibly to monitor changes to Jawoyn Country after cool, early season burning.

A group of people waving at the camera.

Dr Jennifer McDonald (standing, second from the left) alongside co-authors and research team at Jarrangbarnmi.

Jarrangbarnmi workshop

During the workshop, Traditional Owners aired their concerns with drones, including that pilots might see restricted sacred sites including gendered sites, sensitive information might be recorded in an open-access database, or Traditional Owners might be removed from decision-making processes on Country. The researchers then shared the legal regulations for flying drones at Jarrangbarnmi that everyone abides by and demonstrated how the technology works.

Jennifer Macdonald in the field in Kakadu National Park interviewing James Dempsey.

As a result of the workshop, Traditional Owners and researchers co-designed rules to make sure Traditional Owners were guiding and authorising the use of drones on their Country. The protocols ensure the use of drones and the data they collect responds to concerns raised by Traditional Owners about drone use and the need for privacy, data ownership and protection. Traditional Owners then provided consent for drones to be used to monitor the effectiveness of early cool fire management at Jarrangbarnmi.

The results, which have been shared in a peer-reviewed science journal2, show how drones can be used ethically with Indigenous land managers on Indigenous Country and are an example of what responsible innovation means in practice. The protocols will be useful for anyone wanting to be responsible and ethical in their use of drones and other technologies, which are now widely used in the environment sector on Indigenous-owned and managed Country.

Read more about the workshop outcomes and the co-design process on CSIRO.au.


  1. Janke, T. 2021, True Tracks: Respecting Indigenous knowledge and culture, NewSouth Publishing.
  2. Macdonald, J.M., Robinson, C.J., Perry, J., Lee, M., Barrowei, R., Coleman, B., Markham, J., Barrowei, A., Markham, B., Ford, H., Douglas, J., Hunter, J., Gayoso, E., Ahwon, T., Cooper, D., May, K., Setterfield, S., Douglas, M. 2021, Indigenous-led responsible innovation: lessons from co-developed protocols to guide the use of drones to monitor a biocultural landscape in Kakadu National Park, Australia. Journal of Responsible Innovation.

In the news