Image by Shane Hansen, taranaki karearea

Rere ki uta                                Fly inland

Rere ki tai                                 Fly coastward

Tau mai te manu                       The bird settles

Pītakataka ki to pae e.              And flits about on its perch.

Waiata (author unknown), translated by Mitchell Ritai

Seeking to rebuild ties to whānau, iwi, and whenua has been an ongoing story for many Māori from the time of nineteenth-century land confiscations.

Now a team of the University’s software engineers, data scientists, and humanities researchers is bringing new data analysis approaches to the task, working in partnership with Māori.

This National Science Challenge–Science for Technological Innovation project is a three-way partnership with Parininihi ki Waitotara (PKW) Incorporation Ltd, a business representing the interests of more than 10,000 Māori shareholders in Taranaki, and the University of Auckland. PKW needs to find around 7,000 missing shareholders in order to distribute more than $4.8 million in unclaimed dividends.

Led by digital humanities historian Associate Professor Sydney Shep, the University team is working closely with PKW to link potentially useful information sources—including often overlooked community-owned and undigitised historical data—and develop innovative big data mining techniques to identify Māori with iwi and whānau connections and link them to whenua.

Kimihia te Matangaro
Part of the SfTI Kimihia te Matangaro project team at Tapuirau, Taranaki (August 2019)—left to right: Mitchell Ritai, Marcus Frean, Sydney Shep, Stephen Neal, Rhys Owen, Andrew Mason, Peter Keegan, Valerie Chan, Catherine Dunphy, Elise Salt, Adrian Poa, Celia Hawea, Pikihuia Reihana, Rere-No-A-Rangi Pope. Image by Te Aroha Hohaia

“People living outside their rohe (tribal area) don’t always know the names of whānau, and this project sees technology doing the heavy lifting in finding these people,” says researcher and Information Management PhD candidate Pikihuia Reihana (Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa, Ngāti Hine, Rangitāne o Wairau, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngai Tahu).

Sydney says the data sources are often fragmented and contradictory, making it a challenging data analytics research project. “Understanding how the data been collected, organised, and preserved is key to developing our analytic software.”

One approach they have used successfully in the PKW work is identifying and linking whānau sibling groups from Māori Land Online (MLO), historical births, deaths, and marriages records, and the Online Cenotaph database. The researchers were able to draw on personal connections to show this was a fruitful avenue for exploration.

“I was able to find my mother’s mother and her brother in the historical births group and MLO list of shareholders for a block of land,” explains software engineer Rhys Owen (Te Rarawa).

“We struck gold. It was an example that showed what we were doing was actually going to work,” says Rere-No-A-Rangi Pope (Ngāruahine), another software engineer on the project.

Sydney says the project model is deeply collaborative. “Every step along the way, from machine to human expert, integrates human knowledge from PKW.

“While we are trying to find individual shareholders, these individuals are part of a collective. We want to find where people fit into their histories, and our tools are trying to determine what those networks are.”

With a tribal connection to Taranaki, Rere says the project is special. “We have a real human investment and I am accountable to more than our project team—I am accountable to my aunties in Taranaki. And when we, as Māori researchers, are undertaking this research, this accountability creates a deeply meaningful experience. We are very privileged to access this knowledge, and we need to respect it and act as guardians of it.”

"Komene Rd View" by Peter Lambert. (Screen print, 1983)
“Relationship building is key. No one brush can be applied to all Māori interactions, but if you put the work in at the front of the project you can navigate the obstacles in good faith, through good communication.”
Tipene Merritt (Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngā Puhi, Rangitāne o Manawatū, Ngai Te Rangi)

Rhys and Rere travel to New Plymouth regularly to work on the project.

“Critical to the success of this project has been our development of our own version of Agile, a software development methodology,” says Rhys. “We go to New Plymouth and sit down with Adrian Poa (Ngāti Maniapoto, Ngāti Porou, Ngā Puhi), PKW’s shareholder adviser. Our discussions about the meaning and significance of the data we are looking at set our agenda for the next couple of months.”

“Without the deep dive, without the mahi (work) of the historians in Taranaki, we wouldn’t have got as far as we have,” adds Rere.

Computer scientists Valerie Chan and Marcus Frean are also part of the team, working alongside PKW to test their theories and refine their research processes as they develop software to connect whānau to whenua.

“Lupin and boxthorn” by Peter Lambert. (Screen print, 1983)
“Lupin and boxthorn” by Peter Lambert. (Screen print, 1983)

The team hopes to collaborate with other iwi to use the project’s data tools to identify and engage with ‘missing’ family members. The PKW project is also part of a larger programme of Māori data science work that has attracted support from both the University Research Fund and the University’s new Mātauranga Māori Research Fund.

“Relationship building is key,” says the University’s research development adviser (Māori), Tipene Merritt (Ngāti Kauwhata, Ngā Puhi, Rangitāne o Manawatū, Ngai Te Rangi). “No one brush can be applied to all Māori interactions, but if you put the work in at the front of the project you can navigate the obstacles in good faith, through good communication.”

Other research articles