It looks like science has come off second best in government considerations during the development of Te Mana o te Taiao, the Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy, which envisions New Zealand as a place where ecosystems are healthy and resilient, and people embrace the natural world.
The press statement announcing the strategy says the Science Reference Group provided information that underpins many of the key decisions about the way forward for prioritising the recovery of biodiversity. But it also says:
The Te Ao Māori Reference Group was responsible for getting a Māori world view to form the basis of the strategy structure.
We should not be surprised. Politicians in recent years have striven or been pressed to ensure a Māori world view is more firmly accommodated in governance and decision-making, including the development of New Zealand’s algorithms charter.
In mathematics and computer science (according to Wikipedia), an algorithm is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation.
“Algorithms are always unambiguous and are used as specifications for performing calculations, data processing, automated reasoning, and other tasks.”
But in this country, te ao concepts must be incorporated in the rules that will govern the preparation of algorithms.
The Biodiversity Strategy unveiled today sets out five core outcomes to ensure nature is thriving by 2050. There are three key themes; getting the system right, empowering action, and protecting and restoring; with specific objectives and goals for 2025, 2030, and 2050.
Launching the strategy, Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage said:
“We recognise the value of nature and our obligation to protect it and importantly, to restore the mauri (the living essence) of nature and people.”
Whoa. This is where science (as the Encyclopedia of New Zealand explains things) must be reconciled with spiritual belief.
Mauri is an energy which binds and animates all things in the physical world. Without mauri, mana cannot flow into a person or object.
The flow of mana
The idea that mana can flow into the world through tapu and mauri underpinned most of Māori daily life. For example, sacred stones possessing mauri were placed in fishing nets, where they were able to attract fish. The stones were placed in bird snares for the same purpose. When fish arrived in the nets or birds in the snares, Maori saw something more than just the creatures before them – they saw energy within these physical forms. The harvest of fish was the arrival of Tangaroa, god of the sea, which meant the arrival of mana.
Mauri is much more influential than science in affecting the behaviour of some people.
At the annual NetHui in Auckland in 2015, Māori discussed and shared their ideas about whether tikanga Maori crosses over to the internet, according to a report by Te Ao Māori News.
The conference was told of research from Lincoln University which found some Māori were concerned about using the internet to communicate on social media and to check the news.
Te Mihinga Komene says, “We are very active on the web, but there are many of us that are scared about new technology, 30 years have passed, let’s move forward eh?”
A Lincoln university philosopher assured the conference tikanga Māori does cross over to the internet:
Indigenous Digital Philosopher, Karaitiana Taiuru says, “We’re kanohi ki te kanohi, you know their mauri, you can touch something and get the mauri and the internet, it’s nothing, it’s te kore and it’s hard to try and quantify that. But if you use the internet for the right purposes then it will have mauri.”
In the statement announcing the new biodiversity strategy, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta drew attention to the government’s political agenda and the so-called partnership that is a product not of anything spelled out in the treaty, but (much more recently) of judges interpreting the treaty and politicians who embrace the judges’ interpretations. She said:
“Many of our threatened species, habitats, and ecosystems are found not only on public land, but also on private and Māori owned land. Strengthening the Treaty Partnership between Māori and the Crown, Te Mana o te Taiao will also help to create and support partnerships throughout local government and iwi.”
Mahuta also highlighted which set of knowledge she regards as the more important:
“Coming together, sharing and using knowledge, especially mātauranga Māori, will benefit our work to protect and restore nature.”
This prompted us to turn to an article on mātauranga Māori and science on the Science Learning Hub:
There has been debate as to whether mātauranga Māori can be referred to as Māori science. Some suggest that matauranga Māori is not science. Science and mātauranga Maori do not seek to do the same thing. Mātauranga Māori is knowledge – knowing about things (such as preparing poisonous karaka berries for eating). Science is about finding out why and how things happen (such as why and how karaka berries are poisonous and how preparation removes the poison).
Galileo once said something similar:
“The intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.”
The Science Learning Hub further says:
Mātauranga Māori is a knowledge base in its own right. It is Māori knowledge, including values and culture. It is different from modern science. Mātauranga Māori belongs to iwi and should remain under Māori control. Mātauranga tauranga Māori is taonga (a treasure) and as such should be protected.
It never dawned on us until now to ask: who owns and controls science?
But work on algorithms in this country will be tempered by cultural and spiritual considerations too. .
Late last month the Government announced it had become the first in the world to outline a set of standards to guide the use of algorithms by public agencies.
This claim was challenged in some quarters, but we reckon more significant issues have gone unchallenged.
The Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand has been designed to give New Zealanders confidence that data is being used safely and effectively across government.
The press statement advised that algorithms are used by agencies to help process and interpret large amounts of data, which can speed up decision-making. The Charter has been signed by 21 agencies which are committed to a range of measures, including explaining how decisions are informed by algorithms
“… and embedding a Te Ao Māori perspective in the development and use of algorithms”.
Point of Order emailed the Chief Executive of Stats NZ, who also is the Government’s Chief Data Steward, for clarification and elaboration.
We asked for more information about how a Te Ao Māori perspective will be embedded in the development and use of algorithms. We declared we had understood there was no ethnic, cultural or spiritual influence on numbers or statistics – a number is a number is a number. We supposed this applied to algorithms, too.
We therefore would welcome some idea of what statisticians or mathematicians (or whoever prepares public-sector algorithms) must do to embed a Te Ao Māori perspective in their algorithms. Responses were provided in the name of Dr Craig Jones, Deputy Government Statistician and Deputy Chief Executive for Data System Leadership.
- What does the embedding of a Te Ao Māori perspective entail?
Answer: As public servants it is beholden upon us to develop and maintain the capability to engage with Māori and to understand Māori perspectives. A part of this is embedding a te ao Māori perspective in all aspects of our work, including the creation of algorithms and decisions informed by algorithms.
o te ao Māori (Māori worldview)
o mātauranga Māori (knowledge)
o te reo Māori (Māori language)
o tikanga Māori (protocols and customs)
o te Tiriti o Waitangi/the Treaty of Waitangi obligations and understanding how it applies day to day
- Can you give me an example(s) of how this will enhance the quality of the algorithms?
Answer: The Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand will enhance the quality of government decision-making using algorithms. This includes the key commitments of:
* Maintaining transparency by clearly explaining how decisions are made by algorithms
* Delivering clear public benefit through treaty commitments
* Focusing on people
* Making sure data is fit for purpose
* Ensuring that privacy ethics and human rights are safeguarded
* Retaining human oversight.
A key aspect of the effective use of algorithms is having high quality data, which requires the trust and confidence of the public who supply much of the data. Māori report significantly lower levels of trust in government than other groups. As the Government is committed to improving services and outcomes for Maori, the Algorithm Charter has a focus on partnership, which we think will help to strengthen the Crown’s relationship with Māori.
- And does the Charter require spiritual beliefs or other cultural practices to be accommodated within this work?
Answer: The Algorithm Charter for Aotearoa New Zealand requires signatories to identify and actively engage with people, communities and groups who have an interest in algorithms and consulting with those impacted by their use. The specific forms of engagement and consultation will depend on the agency, algorithm and people, community of group.
- [NOTE: We drew attention to the Lincoln University study which found some people are anxious about technologies such as the internet] Is a Te Ao Māori perspective being incorporated in the development of public service algorithms to accommodate or address similar concerns? Or are there other reasons?
Answer: The public service is committed to ensuring greater understanding and incorporation of te ao Māori woven into our work and ethos, as outlined in the Public Service Reforms.
- In which other countries are the perspectives of a specific ethnic group embedded in the development and use of algorithms?
Answer: We’re not aware of other countries who have done this.
But other countries don’t have a treaty to be brandished in support of critical constitutional, economic and social decisions 180 years after its signing.