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Data, custodianship and cooperatives

June 20, 2014

This post follows on from a presentation that was given at the 2013 Cooperative Congress in Cardiff.

There is a data asymmetry that exists that only now are we becoming aware of. It affects us all in subtle ways yet we are often ignorant as to the mechanisms and processes at play. We signed a contract in which we didn’t read the small print and that contract stated somewhere within labyrinthine text, that the data we create we give away.

The world on which we rely is increasingly mediated by the digital devices we own. This is the lens through which we look, search and communicate. This lens is a seductive lens, for it offers us the things that we want, when we want them in a form of seamless personalisation.

The language of personalisation is one of empowerment and liberation, beguiling us as individuals, as unique and special people. The choices we make, the places we go and the people we communicate with create a trace that enables personalisation to become invisible and seamless. This trace is so pervasive that ultimately we may find that the flavour of empowerment we get is partial or false. When Google’s President of the Americas, Margo Georgiadis spoke at a 2013 meeting of Chicago’s Metropolitan Planning Council, and said of Google’s wish “to open all municipal data so Google can use it to become everyone’s perfect personal assistant—an invisible entity that knows what you want before you do.” alludes to a future dystopia – the choices we make being assisted by an omniscience that prejudges, advises and executes. To live life through this lens surely has a corrosive effect on what it is like to be human, programming out serendipity, self-determination and the space to get things wrong.

Would this personalised empowerment also have an impact on our ability to act collectively? If our experience is individualised would that mean the environment for collective opportunity, action and representation is diminished? Perhaps the answer to this is to take more control of the data that we give away and to do this we need, as a society, to become more data literate. Our data is often imagined as valueless, as a by-product of some other activity, but aggregated it has immense value. It affects the supply chain, advertising, transportation, essentially anything that would benefit from knowing how people behave in a given environment, at a given time.

We could as individuals decide to withdraw from this world of data enabled services and applications, but this would be akin to running to the hills and hiding in caves. Intelligent use of data has benefit such as accelerating the search for new cures, managing of scarce resources and allowing us to become more aware of our environment and actions. Also personalisation can allow us to navigate the clutter of our increasingly digital world. Individually our data has little value – except to ourselves, but aggregated, value increases. If we choose not to allow the use of our data as individuals, apart from a sense of empowerment, we might find that we aren’t eligible for some of the services and benefits that we already take for granted. This would perhaps, have limited appeal.

If data could be brokered then perhaps we can start to create a more equitable and informed use of data. One possible solution is to create data cooperatives where individuals can nominate the organisation to be a custodian and broker. The benefits are many although the challenges to a data cooperative’s creation and operation are also numerous. An organisation that is owned by, and is representative of the people who allow its custodianship could enable a more ethical and moral approach to data use.

Data legislation and rights is complex and its implementation is often mired in contractual and EULA (End User License Agreement) complexities. A data cooperative could act as a source of knowledge and advice in this space. By granting custodianship it could act as an informed broker.

The cooperative would also be representative of the people whose data it holds, creating value and a voice for people, in a space that is dominated by corporate interests and governmental organisations. Custodianship can create a more equitable relationship between the individual, the data and the end user through creating an environment for informed consent and control over what data is made available and to whom.

Why a cooperative over other organisational models? Data is one thing that we all seem to have an abundance of. Giving everyone a voice and control over how that data is used through a community minded, democratic structure feels like a natural fit.

Link to original presentation http://www.slideshare.net/FutureEverything/cooperative-congress-2013-v2-with-captions

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