Local Observations and Knowledge: Data Management Issues and Practices

By Peter Pulsifer, Chris McNeave and ELOKA team


At the beginning of the 21st century, we are witnessing dramatic change in the Arctic region. Environmental change experienced over recent decades is happening together with transformations in political and economic systems. The region is increasingly at the center of international interest and debate. This interest has highlighted the fact that the Arctic region is, and has been, home to Indigenous peoples and their ancestors for millennia. Indigenous peoples of the North will not only feel the impacts of current and future changes, but through their intimate knowledge of the Arctic environment, they are playing an important role in understanding these transformations.

As environmental change is observed, the Arctic is increasingly being seen as an early-warning system that will help to inform our predictions of and adaptations to future global change. The scientific community has recognized that Indigenous peoples living in the Arctic are an integral part of any viable Arctic observing network.

Indigenous peoples have experienced the Arctic environment for many generations while incorporating these experiences into a complex system. This system of practices and understanding is often referred to as traditional knowledge. It has been established over long periods of time and transmitted orally from generation to generation. While knowledge held by peoples of the Arctic is cumulative and has a strong connection to the past, it is also a knowledge that is adaptive and constantly evolving based on changes in community and the peoples' interaction with their environment. Thus, local observations made today as part of northern residents' daily experience can support many current needs (e.g., travel, hunting) and contribute to the evolution of a traditional knowledge system. In keeping with the dynamic, geographically specific, and current nature of the knowledge held by Arctic residents, the term 'local observations and knowledge' is used here.

Beyond having intrinsic value to Indigenous peoples of the North, and to humankind as a whole as valuable contributions to environmental monitoring and assessment, local observations and knowledge have been critical in a number of areas, including:

  • cultural preservation
  • resource management
  • wildlife and protected area conservation
  • stewardship of biodiversity
  • managing development
  • developing environmental ethics

Sharing Traditional Knowledge

Sharing local observation and knowledge requires new practices and understanding that go beyond the experiences of local communities and mainstream scientific methods. To be effective and appropriate local communities and culture must search out new approaches in the exchange of information. Simply attempting to capture local observations and knowledge in a database may fail to adequately represent the knowledge. Nuances typical of the knowledge can be very difficult if not impossible to codify or quantify. Codification or quantification also presents the risk of removing important contextual information about the origins of the knowledge, how the data were created, and appropriate and acceptable uses of the data, for example.

Communities and researchers are using mature and new technologies to go beyond the simple documentation of local observations and knowledge, which typically relies on textual reports and tables of codes and numbers. The use of interactive multimedia presents new possibilities for recording and sharing local observations and knowledge.

Now audio and video recording media document observations, knowledge, and narratives as told by knowledge holders and communities in the language of their choice. To add a visual dimension, photographs and other visualizations further complement the knowledge documentation process. Maps and other geographic data (e.g., Global Positioning System tracks) are used to add a spatial dimension to the knowledge documentation process. The use of interactive hypermedia is supporting more accurate and complete representations of the complex relationships that are often revealed by knowledge holders. Lastly, emerging knowledge management tools have the potential to document, visualize, and analyze language and terminology used by communities and others with whom communities want to share knowledge.

All of these relatively new tools and methods have the potential to better represent local observations and knowledge of the Arctic; however, they result in the production of many different but interrelated objects and data sets. It is possible for a single local observation and knowledge documentation project to produce, for example, any of the following:

  • text documents capturing narratives
  • documents related to ethical research practices (e.g. consent forms)
  • tables of observations, works of art (e.g., graphic, music, sculpture)
  • articles of clothing, audio and video recordings of interviews or narratives
  • transcripts of recordings
  • photographs
  • animations
  • maps
  • GPS tracks
  • local gazetteers
  • local dictionaries and other linguistic materials
  • local weather station data

Additionally, data such as topographic maps and satellite images may be used in conjunction with local observations and knowledge to effectively become part of the data set.

Consequently, the data systems and methods for Local and Traditional Knowledge (LTK) data management are often more complex than those ordinarily used in environmental, health or social science applications. Data systems most appropriate for local observations and knowledge need to deal with qualitative and quantitative data, as well as personal information. Additionally, systems often need to make data and information available to a wide variety of end users including local community members, members of other northern communities, scientists, policy makers, and the general public. Each of these user groups may have different levels of access and need information in a different form.

While many of the individual technical components and know-how needed to create such systems exists, mainstream technologies do not meet all of the identified needs 'out of the box.' Significant technical and methodological support is still required to establish effective and appropriate means of recording, storing, and managing data and information resulting from the documentation of local observations and knowledge. In addition to supporting the production of high quality data (e.g., clear audio and video), much of the required effort relates to integrating or linking various components of information systems in a way that is intuitive and flexible. Another area in need of research and development is the production of usable tools that assist in recording appropriate contextual information about the local observations and knowledge being documented.

See the Providing Context - Documenting Data section below.

Preserving Traditional Languages

Another important but challenging requirement is finding ways to assist Indigenous peoples to share their concepts and information in their own language. Developments in this area can facilitate knowledge sharing, and may also assist in language preservation efforts. Although it is widely recognized that the best approach to preserving language is to cultivate its day-to-day use, the number of native speakers of northern Indigenous languages is declining. Improving language documentation may help to prevent total language loss and contribute to recovery in the future.

Preserving Traditional Knowledge

Local observations and knowledge of the Arctic clearly have a current value to local community members and others. Much of this information also has a value for future generations. The information can be an important means of cultural preservation: of passing down aspects of local knowledge and classification systems, terminology, environmental and resource management practices, and elements of world view from one generation to the next. While oral tradition is still very important in this regard, managing descriptions in other forms (e.g., multimedia) can complement such preservation. Additionally, environmental knowledge can provide an important record of the past state of the Arctic environment, proving preservation is critical for evaluating change.

Managing Data Based on Local Observations and Knowledge

Indigenous peoples are asserting control over their knowledge. While in the past researchers often treated Indigenous knowledge as a value-free commodity, current practices differ. Today, research guidelines and licensing regimes require community consultation and informed consent. Funding agencies and other organizations are now revising or releasing formal directives on ethical research conduct for studies involving Indigenous peoples. More and more, ethical research requires, at minimum, to effectively share the results of research with communities. At best, local communities are involved as full partners or even facilitated in their own research.

Much, however, remains to be done. Methods, technologies, and best practices need to be developed to manage local observation and knowledge documentation projects, while local community members must relate their understanding of the ethics of data collection, management, and dissemination within these projects.

With tools and a network to support ethically sound local observations and knowledge documentation projects, a number of problems can be avoided, such as the following:

  • misplacement or loss of extremely precious data from Elders who have passed away
  • lack of awareness of previous studies causing repetition of research and wasted resources occurring in the same communities
  • a reluctance or inability to initiate or maintain community-based research without an available system and network to manage the results

A pressing need exists to establish human and technical systems that will allow Arctic communities to manage and preserve local observations and knowledge for their local needs. At the same time, establishing a physical network linking technology, and a human network linking members of communities, researchers, decision makers, students, and others will provide the mechanism necessary for knowledge exchange and sharing among all of those with an interest in the Arctic region. While local oral traditions have been dominant in many northern cultures, northerners are now using telecommunication and information technologies to communicate in their daily lives. Although challenges still exist, new telecommunications infrastructure is connecting northern communities. This provides the technical foundation for sharing local observations and knowledge with other community members, within regions, nationally, and internationally.

With respect to establishing a human network, currently, there are a number of organizations and researchers coming together to address this issue—a collaborative network is emerging. One of these is ELOKA, the "Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic." The goal of ELOKA is to facilitate the collection, preservation, exchange, and use of local observations and knowledge of the Arctic by providing data management and user support, and to foster collaboration between local and international researchers. See the section to learn more about the project.

Providing Context - Documenting Data

When presented in the absence of the local and cultural context in which it was collected, local observations and knowledge can lose value at best, and be misleading at worst. Thus, common to LTK research and collection projects is the risk that "[i]n an attempt to make very complex knowledge understandable, local knowledge is often separated from the context in which it is situated" (ITK and NRI 2007:4).

Although understood as a necessarily partial solution, data management best practices promote a strong emphasis on data documentation as this helps to mitigate the risk of exchanging or using data without suitable contextual information. Additionally, detailed data documentation can promote preservation in the short and long term by recording, for example, detailed information about the origin of the data, how the data were collected, constraints on usage, detailed specifications for the data formats, and organization of the data.

To promote more complete representation of data, and to ensure discoverability, access to and preservation of data, metadata (as complete as possible) must be collected. Metadata at its simplest is the who, what, where, when, and how of the data collection, or in other words, data about the data. Some of these metadata components may be more familiar than others.

Who: People Behind the Data

The who are the people involved in the collection of the information, individuals conducting interviews, or translators of the interviews, or compilers of the information, interviewees, and information on language and culture should be included.

What: Contributed Knowledge

The what are the topics mentioned or discussed, or the characteristics of the data itself. The topics discussed may be broad categories of topics such as "hunting" or "sea ice." Ideally the metadata would be further developed into more refined subtopics. For example, in the case of "sea ice," "polynyas" could also be added. There can be many topics and subtopics to list in any one interview or collection object, and it is very important that as many of these be listed as possible.

As part of ELOKA's effort to ensure that local observations and knowledge remains in the hands of the communities, one way of assuring that is to make sure we allow for the broadest data description, or metadata, as possible. Data descriptions of format or type also fall into this group. These can be descriptions for audio/video files and their data types such as media, format or sampling rates, documents, maps, digital or hardcopy photographs, etc. Often collections have more than one data type so it is important to know this information for data management and distribution planning.

Where: Community Locations

The where, the spatial information, is given in both place names and in coordinates. Place names can be common and local place names. The coordinates characterize the coverage area as a point, line, polygon or bounding box. Coordinates expressed in decimal degrees (DD) are preferred, however degrees, minutes, seconds (DMS) are also acceptable.

When: Event date and date when the related data were gathered

The when, or the temporal information describes the time of the event or topic of discussion, as well as the date of the interview, for example. There are two periods of temporal information to consider for a collection: the date of the event, such as a period of unusual sea ice formation, for example; and the date that the information was gathered, or the interview date.

How: Data Collection Methods

Lastly, the how describes the methods, techniques, and instruments used for gathering interviews, observations, measurements, etc. To make sure the data are useful to local communities and others in the short and long term, and can be discovered as ethically appropriate by various users with diverse disciplines or interests, it is imperative that this information is collected along with the collection or data itself. For the knowledge holders and data providers (who may be the same person or people), this can mean a significant amount of effort. But it is important those most familiar with its content and context develop this information. Through the process of describing documented forms of local observations and knowledge using metadata, providers help to ensure that the data can be understood, managed, and appropriately distributed along with as much contextual information as possible.