Empowering co-operative members through data control

In the age of technology, many believe that personal data is out of control. William Heath, an entrepreneur active in personal data and digital rights, thinks retail co-operatives...

In the age of technology, many believe that personal data is out of control. William Heath, an entrepreneur active in personal data and digital rights, thinks retail co-operatives are well positioned to give control of data back to members. Mr Heath is chair of Mydex, a social enterprise that provides a range of services to help people to capture and manage their personal data, analyse it and share it in a fully controlled manner.

One of the speakers at the National Retail Consumer Conference, he talked about the role retail co-operatives could play in empowering members by giving individuals personal control of personal data. This would benefit not only individuals, but also co-ops, which could update the data they have and move to a more personalised marketing, based on trust on both sides. Individuals would be able to submit data and get data back as well. They would have personal data stores, which they could choose to connect to governmental associations or shops.

General secretary of the Co-operative Party, Karin Christiansen, who is also chair of the Open Knowledge Foundation, believes a piece of legislation to transfer ownership of personal data is required. “Personal data stores are the future […] but that hub should also be a co-op. That would add to the trust element,” she said.

Secretary general of Co-operatives UK, Ed Mayo, who was chairing NRCC, commented: “We are stuck with this idea of [co-operative] membership and expect people to understand it.

“In the old days people must have thought about it as dividend, now as a card, but people need to be able to connect and think about membership in a different way and data could be a way to do that.”

International Co-operative Alliance President, Dame Pauline Green, also attended the NRCC conference in Stratford. “I come to this meeting every year.  I grew up within the retail consumer movement in the UK, and despite the work globally, it’s important to me to come to this meeting to keep my feet on the ground by talking to the many co-operators I know in this sector,” she said, adding that the event had an even more focused agenda and was becoming one of the best in the country among co-operative meetings.

“One session that I particularly enjoyed this year was a short pre lunch one by William Heath who managed to combine a seriously important issue about how individuals can control their personal data on the internet. If implemented, his product would allow co-operatives to build on their respect for the individual and their rights, by putting decisions about their personal information dispersal in their hands and and not have it controlled by commercial or multinational businesses. It was inspirational – a profound message delivered with real humour.”

The conference also raised the issue of sustainability, looking at what co-operatives can do to reinforce their role. This is an important theme of the Alliance’s Blueprint for a Co-operative Decade, said Dame Pauline, who had just returned from a meeting at the Food and Agricultural Organisation in Rome. “We talked about how to build food co-operatives in sub-Saharan Africa, to help keep prosperity in the hands of Africans, allowing them to take themselves out of poverty beginning now and not leaving deep seated problems to future generations. That’s what co-ops can do,” she added.

“At global level, we now have 16 co-operative businesses participating in the recent task force meetings of the G20’s business advisory Group the B20. This gives the movement the chance to contribute to the B20’s recommendations to the G20.“We can help to shift the axis of the global economy to something that is better balanced, and as Pope Francis continues to say, “puts human beings back into the global economy”.added Dame Pauline.

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