A data co-operative is being trialled in Cumbria, as part of plans for a national member-owned business which will collect and market information to investors.
The team behind the Community Data Co-operative say they want to create “a safe space where the community can commercialise its collective knowledge” by selling data from member surveys to businesses looking to invest.
Any profits will be returned to members as dividends, put into community wellbeing projects of their choice, or reinvested into the co-op for growth and development.
The co-op – set up with development advice and support from Jo White at Co-operative Futures – has 28 business members and 83 individual members; although the Covid-19 pandemic has hampered efforts to recruit the latter, efforts at political and business engagement have been more fruitful and national rollout plans have already led to discussions with two co-ops in the Midlands.
The plan for the pilot scheme is to recruit at least 1% of the Cumbrian population, offering a representative cross-section, to find out what they want and need from investment; the membership target is 5,000 individuals and 500 small and medium enterprises.
Last September the co-op was approached by Britain’s Energy Coast Business Cluster (BECBC), a business organisation backed by Cumbria’s nuclear industry, which asked it to join a the Invest in Cumbria Alliance, a group of private sector organisations, local government bodies and political leaders looking to build social value into investment.
Working with the co-op, the Alliance is now creating its Cumbria Investment Charter, setting out principles for engagement with inward investors to create social value; this has already been signed off by four MPs and three councils in the region.
“The co-op’s role will be to develop a representative membership across the county,” said the co-op’s co-founder Quentin Boyes.
“BECB’s board set up the investment alliance as a lobbying group to talk to inward investors. The feeling was the the social value and CSR policies of old were no longer fit for purpose, that we need to talk to communities at the sharp end of things, to find out what they want and need, and find a mechanism for investment to buy into that.”
In December, the co-op was given its first data analysis/insight commission from Cumbria County Council – providing analysis of 2,000 responses to its Parent and School Transport Demand Surveys in relation to Feet First initiative. This six-week project was delivered at the end of January.
Mr Boyes added: “We are seeking to work with any other co-op who can see the value in the research offering we can provide, who want to partner with for mutual benefit and can help us towards our goal of national representation of communities from every background.”
He says the co-op will be able to charge a premium rate because it offers good quality data. “Members will be supplying it willingly, they know it has a value to the co-op and their communities, and they will want business customers to come back.
“And because we offer a secure and fully anonymised service, we are very useful for companies who want to survey their employees, by avoiding the trust issues when businesses conduct internal surveys themselves.”
Mr Boyes said the co-op is in part a response to growing public concern over the use of customer data by businesses, and offers a mechanism where members can control their data and see their communities benefit from it. “The members create the rules, if they don’t like the way their data is handled, stored, analysed, used, they can change it. This is the perfect way for data protection to take place.”
And by including a full cross section of the population, he hopes the co-op will “help a community work out what it feels about an issue and give it information to act”.
This is important in a region like Cumbria, where there are pockets of deprivation left by the collapse of the mining industry, and differences of opinion over issues such as the nuclear industry and the future development of the Lake District national park.
“We’re a neutral party,” said Mr Boyes. “We want a representative profile across Cumbria; the co-op’s role is to provide access for investors to to ask Cumbria what it wants. Everybody who runs research will agree to it being anonymised; it will give insight into how the community wants development to play out.”
Members of the co-op include Hazel Blears, the former Labour MP who is now a director of the Co-op Group.
She said: “Cumbria Data Coop are like so many Coops – agile, innovative, creative and committed to working in the best interests of their members. They are the first co-op research organisation in the country and have created a unique digital platform to gather the diverse views of communities so that the voices of those seldom heard count rather than just those who speak loudest.
“They can quickly gather views and opinions from community voice panels on issues such as planning proposals, changes to local services, the impact of business decisions, their priorities for public investment and a whole host of other issues where the community should have a say.
“I was delighted to become a member and to support CDC and I hope they will help to improve our local democracy so that decisions are taken with the community rather than for them.
“As a member of the coop my data remains my own and is not there to be exploited for commercial gain. That’s co-operation.”
A number of data co-ops have emerged around the world in recent years, including Swiss health co-op MIDATA and US farmer’s co-op GISC, which have been designed to let members control and benefit from their own data.
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