Three very different design paths

XVI.3 May + June 2009
Page: 46
Digital Citation

UNDER DEVELOPMENTReconstructing Australian Aboriginal governance by systems design

Peter Radoll

The way in which Western European societies organize themselves reflects other aspects of their world. The governance structure of a community is one example. The small rural community where I reside in Australia has a population of 1,200, but the shire itself has approximately 11,000 residents. Recently, we voted for our local government representatives, who then voted in a mayor of the shire. Federal elections are conducted in the same manner: We vote for federal representatives, and the governing political party votes for a leader, the prime minister, to govern Australia. This is all very neatly ordered and assumes a particular hierarchy of governance. But what if a society were not structured in such a manner? What if it did not have a leader but rather were led by a council of the wisest and sometimes oldest members of the society with perhaps a single, alternating spokesperson but not one leader? What if that society were a subculture within a structured hierarchical society? This is how Australian Aboriginal communities are structured.

Having a council of elders to govern a community is how Aboriginal communities are organized. Historically, Aboriginal communities are led by a council of elders, among whom the power is distributed. Usually, all family groups in that community are represented. While Australia has been colonized for more than 200 years, Aboriginal communities are for the most part still governed or represented through some form of Aboriginal council of elders. Even in urban areas, elders councils exist to represent the indigenous people of the land. One example of this is in Australia’s capital city, Canberra, where the Australian Capital Territory’s (ACT) government recognizes and supports the United Ngunnawal Elders Council. The purpose of the council is to advise the ACT chief minister on matters associated with indigenous issues across the ACT [1].

In recent times Aboriginal culture and traditional knowledge have come to the forefront. Aboriginal elders want to continue passing on their traditions, knowledge, and culture to younger generations, but it is difficult to do so in a globalized, modern, multicultural society like Australia. Elders are concerned about the younger generations growing up without their culture, about a lack of interest in their language, dance, and traditions. To prevent its extinction, the elders want to preserve Aboriginal culture—family histories, traditional language, and customs—for their descendents.

With the onset of the technological age, it has been suggested that information technology can preserve Aboriginal culture and traditional knowledge in a format that can be distributed easily and for many years to come. Moreover, this technology enables the digital repatriation of traditional artifacts from major museums around the world, the recording of rock art sites, and the digital management of cultural heritage. This material is also attractive to anthropologists and linguists for research purposes. Interestingly, the nation’s scientists also want to preserve Aboriginal traditional knowledge, but for reasons like carbon pollution management, which is associated with global warming.

Information technology may offer a solution to the storage, distribution, and retrieval of Aboriginal traditional knowledge through databases and Web technologies. Databases in their architecture assume a western European governance hierarchy—in that there is a single database administrator who holds the systems administrator password. I call this the “god” password. This means that one person is responsible for the administration of the database but is also responsible for providing access to the data. This model is in contrast to Aboriginal community governance and must be addressed in the design of the system. While many have attempted to address this, to date there has not been a successful solution to this fundamental database-design issue.

Rather than a single leader with total control over the database, who would normally be the database administrator, the governance of Aboriginal communities is such that the entire council of elders would expect equal access to the database.


The debate about the use of databases and digitizing of traditional knowledge is ongoing, but to understand the chasm between the two worlds of Aboriginal communities and information technology, we need to understand that the two are not compatible. This complexity of information technology and Aboriginal communities is best summed up by Verran et al.: “It is work that involves the intersection of two quite different knowledge traditions where little is held in common between the ways the traditions understand themselves.” [2] This is coming closer to the issue of where the design of the technology is routed in a tradition that is at best foreign to the Aboriginal communities upon which it is being imposed. That is, databases are not valueless as they assume there is a logical hierarchy both in data storage and also administration and access. This not only relates to the data being stored but also the design of the database and the database management system, or DBMS, which is of more concern, as that is where the power struggle begins. The issues of and with using information technology for storing Aboriginal traditional knowledge come from the same Verran et al. article, in which they also find it difficult to match Aboriginal values with the design constraints of information technology, stating: “We look at ways of proceeding that connect well enough with both traditions in particular circumstances.” [2] Here lies a fundamental issue with designing information technology solutions for Aboriginal communities. The question then is, what does “well enough” mean? Well enough for whom, in what circumstances, and from whose perspective?

The DBMS design is a major consideration for Aboriginal communities because it assumes there is a hierarchy in both administration of the database and also access to the database. The design of the DBMS is such that there needs to be a database administrator who implements processes to ensure integrity and control, providing levels of access to those who want to access the data. How do you ensure the security and integrity of the database when there could be up to 10 or more members of a community that expect equal security rights and access to the database? This issue they struggle with is, who should have what type of access and who should not have access?

So rather than a single leader with total control over the database, who would normally be the database administrator, the governance of Aboriginal communities is such that the entire council of elders would expect equal access to the database, with all of the council deciding on who has access to what data. As those who presently administer databases would understand, having 10 or so database administrators would prove to be a most interesting situation from many aspects.

Over the years I have witnessed and experimented with various ways to try and overcome this problem. I have witnessed database segment encryption based on username and password so that the data can be decrypted only by using the depositor’s password. I have witnessed elders councils deciding on a leader to hold the administrator password authority, but this has led to many arguments and has altered the governance structure of the Aboriginal community itself. Once one person from one family has control over the database and access to the data, the most common issue that occurs is that thosein the community, who do not associate with that family, are excluded. These disputes are quite normal in Aboriginal communities. With information technology solutions, there must be a single keeper of the “god” password, which can exclude all other families from being able to access the data stored. This in effect denies many from accessing their own cultural material.

As I have stated previously, the reason for elders councils is to distribute the governance power across a community rather than in one leader. The example above is a demonstration of what happens when there is an interruption to the traditional Aboriginal governance. This abuse of power is not uncommon in Aboriginal communities, as well-respected Aboriginal Elder Uncle Chicka Dixon articulated in a public lecture about Aboriginal community leadership and the struggle for social justice in the 1960s: “I didn’t want power; power corrupts.” [3]

We are now in the position where technology is imposed upon a culture “where little is held in common” with the imposing culture, combined with a notion of projects proceeding in a way that “connect[s] well enough” to both cultures. We have a society that is governed by a council of elders and a well-respected Aboriginal elder articulating that “power corrupts.” And we have a keeper of the “god” password.

Ideally, information technology design should change to reflect the Aboriginal communities upon which it is being imposed, to ensure that the culture they so want to preserve is not being altered by the technology being used to preserve it.

The future signs, however, are encouraging, with more and more work taking place in the field of HCI for development, as this column attests. It is our belief that as new technology is created for different indigenous communities, ICT as a whole will benefit from new design solutions and ideas.


1. “United Ngunnawal Elders Council 2008.” Department of Disability, Housing and Community Services, Multicultural, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Affairs, updated 13 May 2008. <>

2. Verran, H., M. Christie, B. Anbins-King, T. van Weeran, and W. Yunupingu. “Designing digital knowledge management tools with Aboriginal Australians.” Digital Creativity, 18, no. 3 (2007): 129–142.

3. Uncle Chicka Dixon. A History of the Political Struggle: A Personal Point of View by Dr. Chicka Dixon, Directed by Jason De Santolo. 36 min. Jumbunna Annual Lecture 2005, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, 2006. DVD.


Peter Radoll is the director of Jabal Indigenous Higher Education Centre at the Australian National University. He holds two degrees in information technology and worked as a systems administrator and systems developer for more than seven years before returning to university to undertake a Ph.D. in information systems examining the uptake of information technology in Australian Aboriginal homes.




UF1Figure. An aboriginal design mosaic in front of Parliament House Canberra, Australia, designed by a renowned indigenous artist Michael Nelson Jagamarra in 1988.

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