Researching ancestry is a spiritual matter for Māori, and platforms like ancestry.com just don’t cut it. Ahau, a Māori-led startup, believes the mysterious technology of blockchain holds the answer.
Dan Walker was a bit nervous when he put his great-great-great grandfather Tuwhakaruru Katene into ancestry.com.
Tuwhakaruru lived through some of the hardest years of colonisation for Māori in South Taranaki. During the 1880s he fought through the Pakeha courts for his Nga Ruahinerangi iwi and succeeded in having some of their land returned.
“I had all of those feelings of, ‘I’m putting him, his spiritual being, in this platform’,” Walker says.
For Māori, researching your family tree is not just a curious dip into the past. “For us whakapapa is everything. It is the core of why we exist.
“Our stories, all of that stuff has mauri (life force) and we need to be careful about where we place things and how we place them.”
Of his 500-odd cousins, only he and two others are entrusted with the responsibility of maintaining their whanau records, he says. In the absence of a better solution, Walker uses ancestry.com, but “because of the way ancestry.com is set up they look across my whakapapa and recommend it for others”. Sure, he has an app on his phone which allows him to update his family tree every time he comes across a new snippet of information, but the trade-off is he’s giving up his data privacy and sovereignty.
How best to store and disseminate whakapapa and keep people engaged with their heritage has been an issue facing Māori for a long time, Walker says. Two-thirds of his Hawera-based iwi Ngati Ruanui live outside South Taranaki, many of them in Australia. The iwi has a digital archive but it’s not something that’s easily accessed. “I just can’t walk in and get someone’s whakapapa, because it’s unique to you. It’s effectively your fingerprint.”
Not even the larger iwi have committed their ancestry records to the cloud because of the lack of protections around digital identity and cultural sensitivity, he says.
Blockchain technology appears to provide the ultimate solution. It is decentralised, meaning that anyone who needs to can have copies of it but without any authority controlling it. It enables secure peer-to-peer transactions and keeps a permanent public record of them.
With each passing generation knowledge held only by families is being lost. Māori were often given English names by missionaries or teachers, and these names were then transliterated back into the Maori version (think Simon/Haimona, John/Hone), or they were known by nicknames by one iwi and something else by another. If iwi members were able to digitally contribute this kind of information it would build a secure genealogy.
Fabulous as it sounds, there are nonetheless two major challenges – one technical, and one far more human. First, the tech is still at a super-early stage and has been chronically over-hyped. Second, explaining blockchain to the aunties on the marae – much less getting kaumatua to trust in this new frontier – is going to be a hard sell. All it will take is one or two iwi to lead the way, but the hurdle is finding that one tribe brave enough to be the guinea pig.
Iwi have huge management and organisational problems, co-founder Ben Tairea says. Without good records on who their people are it’s hard to seek mandates from them. Surveying is expensive, and voting is still largely a manual process.
Ahau wants to build a one-stop digital shop, creating secure and accessible ancestry records, digital identities, and allowing for online voting. Such a platform could have implications for everything from land ownership to health outcomes and incarceration rates.
“What we’re offering to provide is a self-sovereign data solution, giving iwi the ability to hold and own that data, and for individuals to own it also,” says Tairea.
“Specifically for voting it offers a really unique proposition because you need to have a verified identity. We can start to do voting with security assurance, [and] we can do surveys knowing that the information is coming from the people.”
Even more important is the social impact, he says. “There’s an opportunity to try and give people that cultural identity, and grow that, and own that, and carry that with them.”
Ahau aims to be a purpose-led business putting kaupapa Māori principles at its core. But at the same time, creating a business model that may become a test case for solving much wider problems, such as voting in local and general elections. Auckland Council has shown interest in what it’s doing, he says.
Heady stuff, and Ahau recognises that it can’t do it on its own. It is connected with other Maori tech startups, as well as Auckland, Waikato and Victoria Universities, and is part of Digital Identity New Zealand to ensure it aligns with compliance standards set for the country. “We are making sure that we’re staying at the front line of the technology without having to be the smartest in the room,” Tairea says.
The subject of digital identities is a huge research topic around the world, and is a tough nut to crack because of the privacy and proof issues, Waikato University computing professor Steve Reeves says.“It’s a bit of a holy grail at the moment. If Ahau manage it, it would be a great thing.
“But it would take a huge amount of investment to rival what’s going on elsewhere, I think.”
His team is in regular contact with the Māori startup. Thanks to a Science for Technological Innovation grant he has been leading a project on storing whakapapa using blockchain. “We’ve now got a prototype system working where you’ve got a blockchain for essentially storing index information,” he says.
What the university doesn’t have yet is a pool of data and users to test its technology on. This is where Ahau’s connections may come in useful, Reeves says.
Ahau has conducted around 30 interviews with iwi representatives and administrators to get their views on the concept.
The fledgling venture is mindful of the sanctity of the information it’s dealing with, and is really asking the elders for advice, co-founder Kaye-Maree Dunn says, which aren’t the kinds of discussions a tech startup normally has.
“There’s online stuff, but actually the real mahi takes place offline face-to-face with whanau.”
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One of the startups Ahau is collaborating with is Māori digital storytelling venture Arataki Cultural Trails. There are synergies with Ahau in terms of capturing cultural data and content, and Arataki knows how hard it can be, founder Lee Timutimu says. It’s spent the last two years developing partnerships with iwi and has only just got one on board officially.
“You’re talking about a very deep relationship which needs to be formed to allow them to access whakapapa which is an incredibly important thing to Māori, it’s our DNA footprint. Relationships with our people take time, and that’s just a given.”
Nevertheless what Ahau is trying to achieve is something that needs to be done, Timutimu says.
Ahau’s mere presence validates that Māori as tangata whenua have a role in the evolution of blockchain technology. “What can it do if it has aroha at its core, rather than putea (money)?” says Dunn.
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