Can co-ops help keep our data in the right hands?

With the rise of social media and search engines prompting growing concern over the ownership of personal data, co-operatives could help people control the information they share. On 20...

With the rise of social media and search engines prompting growing concern over the ownership of personal data, co-operatives could help people control the information they share. On 20 October, Open Data Manchester organised a conference to explore the idea of an open data mutual.

Open Data Manchester is a community of developers, activists, artists, journalists and public sector employees who want to become more familiar with the tools, datasets and projects using open data. Its conference in October looked at how open data co-ops could make a difference, as well as how a mutual organisation could represent the interests of its members.

Our Data Mutual

Alex Craven spoke to the conference about the project Our Data Mutual, which he helped to develop.

He said his job as chief executive of Bloom, an advertising agency in Leeds, taught him that brands were telling different stories to customers who did not want to hear them.

On the other hand, he added, privacy can be a subjective term. “Some people really do care – others don’t care at all about privacy,” he said. Our Data Mutual tries to address both issues by providing the means for members to share the data they want and choose who to share it with. As a mutual, it is owned and run by its members, who receive the benefits of sharing their data.

Mr Craven said Open Data Mutual was about creating a platform for the management, monetisation, control, protection and ‘use for good’ of its members’ data. On joining, members can define how comfortable they are with the trading of their data – and with which types of organisation they want their data to be shared.

The mutual will then be responsible for brokering with organisations that want to buy members’ data and holding them to a code of practice.

“The idea is to gather data and, depending on what people need, send them information on that specific product – such as a mortgage – and once they choose their mortgage, focus on something else they need,” he explained.

Instead of paying an intermediary for information, a mortgage lender would pay the data mutual instead, benefiting its members.

TheGoodData

While Our Data Mutual is currently at an implementation stage, a data co-op in London is already helping people control their personal data.

Marcos Menendez, founder of TheGoodData, said the co-op has developed an extension which blocks browsing data that would otherwise be used by third-party trackers. Those downloading the free software can avoid having their data used without their consent, or can then choose to have a small part of that data traded on their behalf by the co-operative.

Half of the money collected is lent to microcredit projects in developing countries via Zidisha, a person-to-person microlending community. The remaining part is used to fund the operation of the co-operative. By downloading the software, customers have the right to apply for membership.

TheGoodData is also in talks with universities to see how students can use the browsing data in research.

Mr Menendez said the enterprise, which is registered under the Industrial and Provident Society Act, is controlled by users based on the one member, one vote principle, with a board of directors, membership subcommittees, data subcommittees and product subcommittees.

The co-operative model is friendlier for financial investors, he added. “Data can be shared and traded by owners for the greater good,” he said. “Data is everywhere. We have to find how to live with it and get the most out of it in a positive way.

“We as individuals can’t do everything against corporations using data – but if we get together we can negotiate the terms under which they use it.”

But ownership could only be ensured with full data protection, he warned. “By ensuring data ownership, customers will be more satisfied – they will gain freedom of choice.”

Mr Menendez added: “You as an individual should have the power to decide how the data is being used, and decide what to do with that data.

“It has to be simplified like within creative commons – you have different levels, allowing different companies to use resources.”

Keeping control

The conference also discussed how data co-operatives could limit the control exercised by large investors. The key, said Mr Menendez, is to be clear about the rules of the mutual from the very beginning and to be transparent. This could be achieved by publishing regular updates and reports online.

But while ethical considerations set co-ops apart from other enterprises, they can also cause division within the mutual sector. This means the governance process must address the concerns of different groups.

In some cases this can be mitigated by the ability to make individual decisions about how and what data is shared; in other cases, decisions can be made by the majority.

Mr Menendez stressed that the ethical dimension of data co-ops gives them a competitive advantage against other solutions on the market. He said that TheGoodData is the only enterprise that brings an ethical dimension to the project by investing in social good.

“Data is not the new oil, it doesn’t emanate from earth, but from people,” he said. “But it has value, it emanates from us, like labour. We should be owning the data.”

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