In 2017, the Economist published an article claiming that oil had been replaced as the world’s most valuable resource by data. However, the people producing the data, internet users, are not the ones who own and reap the benefits. It is captured by tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Amazon, enabling them to grow into the most powerful and valuable companies in the world.
Cooperative ownership of data might provide an alternative, and unlike many other proposed solutions, has already been proven to work. Below are four examples of data cooperatives in action.
Perhaps the most substantial example is that of Online Computer Library Center, described below.
MIData is a health data cooperative owned by the people donating their personal data, founded by a Swiss doctor, Ernst Hafen in 2015. It enables the members to save health data on a protected cloud service and share it with researchers. In the first MIData project, members who had gone through a post-bariatric surgery provided researchers with a record of their weight over a period of time. Another early study had members, who were part of a trial of a new multiple sclerosis drug, share data about their cognitive and motor skills through an app developed for this purpose. MIData will also be offering their members a marketplace for health apps.
The researchers typically pay the cooperative for the members' participation, and the members democratically choose how the money is spent. Often the money is used to support research that the members care about.
ADS-B exchange is the largest uncensored flight-database "built for hobbyists, by hobbyists”, powered by open-source software.
The hobbyists are called “feeders”, and becoming one is relatively easy, you only need few cheap items, such as antenna to detect “ABS-B” data. ADS-B is a system whereby airplanes broadcast their location, speed, airplane type and other pieces of information. ADS-B Exchange enables every feeder who shares their data to get access to everyone else’s data.
Although it enables people to track their holiday flights, it is not the go-to site for that. Instead, the hobbyists use the data for things like Project Peregrine, with the aim to "expose the airborne movements of corrupt global elites, dodgy public officials, and a vast array of illicit and criminal actors including wildlife traffickers and conflict financiers”.
The hobbyists are enthusiastic and imaginative in utilising the data, with an active online community including a 900 users strong chat group. Below is an example from one hobbyist on what the co-operative enables them to do:
Drivers Seat Data Cooperative allows drivers using platforms like Uber or Lyft to track their driving and pay to figure out the optimal times to make money based on their schedule, where they should drive when it is slow, etc. They can choose to share the data with city agencies to help with transportation planning. The drivers own the cooperative and it enables them to get more money for work they are already doing.
There is increasing interest in using the existing big cooperatives to use their ownership model to enable a new approach to data ownership.
For example, Alex Pertland, a co-creator of the MIT Media Lab who played a key role in the development of the GDPR, has recently written about the potential for a 100 million members strong US credit union sector to revolutionise the digital economy through data cooperatives. According to him:
“It is practically possible to automatically record and organize all the data that citizens knowingly or unknowingly give to companies and the government, and to store the data in credit union vaults.”
Individuals would pool their personal data in a credit union — just as they pool money — and that institution would both protect the data and put it to use. Companies would need to request permission to use the data and members could request analytic insights from the cooperative.
Data cooperatives could also help tackle the “cold start problem”, where big and well established tech giants hoard data, giving them a big advantage over younger competitors. This credit union network of data cooperatives with millions of members, could provide these new competitors with data currently only available to tech giants, if the members would see it as beneficial.
Pertland is already piloting this model, and it has the potential to spread rapidly. The credit union movement has been at the forefront of innovation before, for example the first online bank in the world was the Stanford Federal Credit Union. Perhaps the movement is in a position today to unleash another profound transformation, one that abolishes the current system of digital feudalism where the value of data is captured by rent-seeking tech giants, not by the people who produce it.
Later this month I will be standing in board elections of the Finnish S-Group, the largest private employer and grocery store chain in the country, with membership including around half of the country’s population. They have also expanded into banking, with their bank account being the most popular in the country (as a side note, the largest bank by assets in Finland is also a massive consumer owned cooperative). I will be approaching Alex Pertland from MIT on how the S-Group giant could enable data cooperatives. If you have any ideas about what I should advocate for the S-Group to do, don’t hesitate to message me by tweeting to Coop Exchange or commenting in our Facebook page!