Indigenous leaders and tech companies came together in Ottawa Wednesday for a forum on how to use data to improve health and welfare, and prevent violence in Indigenous communities.

The Indigenous Controlled Technology Forum at the Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health connected community leaders and data analytics experts to review case studies and discuss best practices around community data and information, specifically when it comes to the care of children.

"We have information, we have the wherewithal, the technology, now we're seeing that we have many partners saying the same thing: let's build an information management system where First Nations have control, we're working with other jurisdictions to make sure that we have a better quality of life for First Nations children," said Ontario Regional Chief Isadore Day.

With a high number of First Nations children in the child welfare system across Canada, and Indigenous women becoming the victims of violent crime at increasing rates, Day believes improved and autonomous control of data and information can help Indigenous communities keep their members safe.

'We'll do a much better job at saving lives'

"What happens to many of our young people — the out-migration of people going to school, or medical appointments, or if there's poverty in a community — oftentime there's not a lot of tracking and building of a social safety net looks at keeping track of where people are and what their needs are," added Day.

Isadore Day

Isadore Day is the Ontario Regional Chief with the Chiefs of Ontario. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

"That's a big gap. And if we can fill that gap, if we can design systems, work with partners and other jurisdictions — government and industry — then I think we'll do a much better job at saving lives."

Day and other leaders including Grand Chief Joe Norton of the Mohawks of Kahnawake and Chief Byron Louis of the Okanagan Indian Band got advice from companies including data analytics firm Forrest Green, BlackBerry and SAS on how to build their own information systems in their communities.

Greg Henderson, a senior director with SAS, explained how better access to information and harmonizing data can prevent tragedies.

"Often after tragic situations occur, it's discovered that information was available that showed there was significant risk to the child, but often that data is not accessible to case workers so that they can do interventions," said Henderson. "So availability of data and leveraging the data that's available is a critical piece of protecting children."

Building partnerships with data giants

Henderson pointed to the case of Phoenix Sinclair, the Manitoba girl who was murdered while in care in 2005, and the information gaps in her child welfare file.

He believes harmonizing data sources across jurisdictions with First Nations leading the way would help protect children like Sinclair.

Greg Henderson

Greg Henderson is a senior director at the data analytics company SAS. (Waubgeshig Rice/CBC)

"There's a lot of valuable information in other data sources, so it's been well documented that things like school attendance, emergency room visits, other factors that are sort of existing in other databases are good indicators or predictors of whether or not a child is significantly at risk for abuse or neglect," said Henderson.

Day believes it's important for First Nations to develop new information systems in partnership with tech companies and governments as a next step.

"It's going to be important going forward that as we talk about technology and building new institutions and fitting that institution with information controls, community members need to participate in that process," he said. 

"And I think that in order for our community members to feel safe about the process, it needs to be them that help develop that system."