After more than two years of waiting, iwi finally have access to current data on their people. But there are new doubts over the next count in 2023.

Official data on iwi affiliation is now available, after the botched 2018 census left Māori and iwi organisations empty-handed.

The new information, released by StatsNZ and the Data Iwi Leaders Group, includes estimates of iwi population based on a combination of data from the previous two censuses.

It also includes estimates on social data like age distribution, level of education and religious affiliation. It also includes information on the 32 iwi who have been added to the official classification list since 2013 such as Ngāi Te Ohuake from Rangitīkei.

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The data shows, for instance, that Ngāpuhi remains the largest iwi in the country by population with more than 165,000 members.

While iwi affiliation data is typically used by the Government to direct government funding and Treaty settlements, the 2018 estimates are being seen more as a resource for iwi themselves.

“Similar to nations, iwi need to data to make decisions,” says lead technician for the Data Iwi Leaders Group Kirikowhai Mikaere (Tuhourangi, Ngati Whakaue).

This includes understanding population growth and education levels, which can then inform iwi strategies for development or funding allocation.

For instance, the 2018 estimates show that 37.7 percent of Ngāti Tarāwhai (Te Arawa) hold a tertiary level qualification, well above the national level of 32.4 percent.

“For iwi, it is about making more timely, robust, and relevant decisions using good evidence. We have to make informed decisions for the benefit of our people,” says Mikaere.

While the new estimates are not exact, StatsNZ says that in most cases they are more relevant and useful to iwi than information from the previous census in 2013.

Along with StatsNZ, the Data Iwi Leaders Group trialled three different methodologies before settling on one that combined data from the previous two censuses with parental iwi information and weighting of other factors.

“While not official census counts, and there being some limitations to how the data can be used, these estimates give a more relevant and up-to-date picture of iwi than continued use of 2013 Census data.”

The 2018 estimates will be stored in Te Whata, the recently launched online platform built to house iwi data.

Te Whata includes a searchable database of iwi information, including data such as home ownership, te reo Māori fluency, and personal income.

The database shows, for instance, that 27 percent of Waikato-Tainui reported being able to understand te reo Māori well or very well in 2013. That’s compared to 16.1 percent for all Māori.

Iwi can also take ownership of their database on Te Whata, contributing stories to the statistics or adding goals.

Arihia Bennett, chief executive officer of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, says Te Whata will allow the iwi to be the narrators of their own data and bring them closer to data sovereignty.

She hopes that having access to the data will bring about a shift in narrative away from deficits and toward the “strength-based approaches that uphold the dignity of Ngāi Tahu whānui”.

The new estimates are the result of more than two years of work to fill gaps of the last census, which meant official iwi statistics could not be released.

In 2018, StatsNZ was only able to collect census forms from 68.2 percent of Māori, down from 88.5 percent in 2013 and well below the general response rate of 83.3 percent.

The undercount led to the appointment of an independent review panel, which found that census data on iwi affiliation was so bad that it could not be formally endorsed.

The review found the low engagement rate was due to the “digital-first” approach pioneered during the 2018 census, leading to a lack of staff and physical census forms in many Māori communities.

The debacle forced an apology to Māori from Statistics NZ and contributed to the resignation of its chief executive Liz MacPherson in 2019.

While Bennett says the new iwi data estimates go some way to redressing the loss of data from the 2018 census, she still wants to see the lessons applied to the next census in 2023.

“One of the biggest challenges in the census approach is how best to engage with whānau to lift response rates,” she says.

“We want to be a part of planning conversations on how to engage with our people.”

So far the Government appears to be listening, with StatsNZ signing a relationship agreement with the Data Iwi Leaders Group to involve iwi in the design and implementation of the next census.

This was followed with an increase in funding for the census from $126 million to $210 million and a recent budget allocation of $14.1 million for pilot census collection projects to be led by iwi.

While the money is a significant boost, doubts remain over whether 2023 will be different.

In 2020, Official Information Act documents revealed that StatsNZ had advised the Government that $210 million would barely meet the minimum needed.

In particular, it advised that data on iwi affiliation was likely to be poor quality under the minimum viable funding option. It advised that for variables where there wasn’t sufficient administrative data available to fill gaps in collected responses, there was a risk the data quality could fall to very poor and not be fit for release, as happened in 2018.

In an earlier interview, Māori data expert Andrew Sporle (Ngāti Apa, Rangitāne, Te Rarawa) told Newsroom the funding increases were “too little, too late”.

Sporle is part of Te Mana Raraunga, the Māori data sovereignty network that warned the Government the last census would significantly undercount Māori and produce unreliable data.

While Sporle says a focus on iwi-led projects is a great start, he’s still not convinced that iwi will have better information come 2023.

Ben Leonard writes on Treaty issues and the environment.

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