Recently, the Co-operative party published an interesting article about data co-ops. The article mention the very few initiatives worldwide including TheGoodData.
We have been invited to share our views about data ownership, the role of co-ops to exercise that right, and some initiatives that we believe that could facilitate the creation and growth of more and stronger data-co-ops.
We share our views hereafter:
Not only our data is becoming more and more valuable, not only it can be key to address new societal challenges, but it is already impacting our daily life. Proliferation of artificial intelligence and big data technologies are already biasing the choices we have when interacting with corporations or even with the Public Administration. Ownership of our data will not only make us capture part of a new factor of production that emanates from us, but will reinforce our freedom as consumers and citizens.
However, building a data co-op that helps us exercise those rights is enormously challenging. We have suffered it when building TheGoodData. Comparing to a traditional co-op there are at least two extra challenges economically speaking:
- Data requires huge volume. There cannot be data co-ops of 10, 100 or 1000 people. Data co-ops need to gather data from hundreds of thousands of people to become a relevant player in front of researchers, data brokers, advertisers, etc. This challenge can be attenuated by targeting a market niche, for instance a geographical one hand in hand with a city council.
- Volume requires building appealing services that “harvest” and process data. Either around privacy, visualisation, research or monetisation. This represents a huge upfront investment in technology development that can only see a payback after a long period in which users are attracted little by little. Many private companies surmount that barrier with the support of venture capitalists that can provide them with enough cash flow to cover that effort. Co-ops cannot normally access to that high-risk form of funding.
There are several levers that can mitigate these 2 barriers. We mention here a few of them:
- Collaboration among co-ops. There are some very sizeable “data pools” that are being managed by co-ops: The Co-operative Group, John Lewis Partnership, The Midcounties Co-operative, The Phone Co-op, etc. These co-ops have millions of data points that could serve as a starting point to build a very robust data co-op. It only requires willingness from participants. This collaboration could eventually be extended to genuine “sharing economy” companies that would be willing to open their users’ data to a neutral hub, owned by the people.
- Support from the Administration. It is the easiest help to request, and the toughest to get, but nevertheless Public Administration can provide an enormous support with limited effort. For instance, providing access to public data at a country or municipality level, legally binding corporations to facilitate data portability in a seamless standardised way, or providing public grants and tools that foster the creation of a data ecosystem.
- Development of legal structures in which co-ops facilitate the participation of venture capital funds. Co-ops can already hold different types of shareholders with different rights. It may be that venture capitalists could already fit into these parameters, but it would require to set up a concrete framework in collaboration with a venture capital. A showcase where the VC can envision that its target pay-back could be achievable, and its minimum shareholding rights could be guaranteed.
- Embracing collaboration between data holders and data traders. In a similar way to the oil industry, landowners may hold the oil property but could lack the means to extract it. In that case of data, data co-ops may focus on holding the “property rights” of their users’ data, but looking for partners that extracts, process and trades that data. In that case, the investment required would fall under the partner duties in exchange of a revenue share. These partners could be other co-ops, private companies or even new forms of platform cooperatives like DAOs (Decentralised Autonomous Organisations). For those interested in that theoretical approach, We have written a short paper that can be read here
There may be many other levers that could propel the creation and growth of data co-ops, and we would appreciate any comment/amendment to this writing. But if none of them is activated, data co-ops may become a utopia of the past. By the time when people decide to practice as data owners it may be too late to change the whole system of corporate and public surveillance where data is in hands of third parties that guarantee the prevailing economic model.
As we communicated in our Annual General Meeting, we had requested a £5,000 Innovate UK voucher. Now we can share with you that we have been awarded with this grant and in fact, we have just seen that the money is in the bank (!!!)
It’s not a big amount of money, but enough to cover the next development that we are going to release: the visualization of our interest graph compared with the average user of TheGoodData based on or browsing data. Here is a screenshot of how it looks like:
First step towards data ownership is about awareness. Only if we are aware of the data that we create we can control it and eventually trade with it in case we want to. This is the goal of this functionality, increase our awareness of the digital footprint that we create while browsing. It help us understand how brands, ad networks and data brokers perceive that we are. Based on a similar categorization we receive some ads instead of others.
We are now testing this new feature before opening it to our users. We want to make sure that the graphs are relevant enough and that the servers can deal with the data volume. As soon as we release it we will communicate it to you.
Once we do it, we will concentrate our efforts on the next developments agreed in the AGM:
- Letting users choose the cause to support with the value of their data. In order to do this we will need to redesign some views and probably look for an alternative nonprofit partner (currently Zidisha)
- Exporting the extension to Firefox
As we agreed in our Annual General Meeting, this year we are going to implement some improvements in order to make the service easier to understand and more appealing, starting with our entry door, the homepage.
TheGoodData concept is far too complex and innovative. We needed to simplify it. We have decided to do so by focusing on our social good angle.
In a research we run early this year, we found out that it was the aspect that people valued more about us, rather than the privacy benefit, that is taken for granted and is not differential from other blocking extensions out there.
Privacy features are still going to work the same way as always, but in this new approach we have stressed the fact that our data is valuable and that we can do some good with it -if we want to donate its value-.
Now it is time for you to tell us what you think. You can do it in the blog comments or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org Any feedback will be very much appreciated.
On June 29th, 2015 we had our first Annual General Meeting. It was a great milestone for us. We hope to held more of those virtual meetings and that attendance keep growing on each event.
We believe that there is a new breed of companies that will emerge based on the networking technologies and marginal costs of production. Companies that will be fully decentralized, open and collaborative. Governance tools and processes will be much more transparent and virtual. This Annual General Meeting was our first little step into this vision.
You can read AGM calling notice and minutes here and here.
We will share in a separate post the vision that we shared and discussed for 2015, but looking into the past, our main achievements and lessons learned in 2014 were:
- We’ve set up world’s first data coop. A truly decentralized virtual organization.
- We’ve built our MVP based on privacy tools and collaboration mechanisms.
- We’ve gathered around 20 collaborators, many of them participated altruistically in the strategy elaboration, legal advisory, workshops, etc. Some others wrote around 750 commits in our open code, one third of them pro-bono.
- We’ve achieved certain PR impact with some articles published in Forbes, FastCompany and GigaOm among others.
On the other side we have learnt a lot about users perceptions and barriers of adoption. We have got very valuable feedback that explains why we haven’t achieved yet the traction that we expected. This is our main goal for 2015. We have mentioned in the past some measures that we are currently working on, and we will give you an update soon.
When a company like Google does not have competition, it has no incentive to be the best in the market anymore. A Google monopoly doesn’t need to put all its efforts on satisfying its users and clients. It can focus on maximising its revenue and profit.
Image from CreativeBloq
We have recently suffered the downside of this monopoly. One month ago our Chrome extension was taken down from Google’s Chrome Web Store as we informed in our collaboration platform. It was done in an obscure and unfair way. We never received an email warning about Google’s decision and there was no direct way to get an explanation for their decision.
Google’s monopoly does not need to spend money on people answering emails from developers. It just needs to set up some algorithms that decide which extensions to allow or block. Ours was blocked.
Since we didn’t know the reason and didn’t have the opportunity to speak to any representative, we have released a new extension with many under the hood changes in the hopes that one of them had an impact in the algorithm that had taken us out. We succeeded, since our extension is again live. Or not, since we know about other extensions like disconnect.me that was also taken down and readmitted with no change on their code.
The short term implication on TheGoodData has been the drop in users after being out of the market for almost a month. The most relevant effect on our tactics has been that one of the tweaks that we have done to the extension was taking out the code that allowed us to anonymously sell some browsing data to a data broker.
This second effect leads to a more strategic implication. It makes us rethink the whole commercial and financial approach. In some way, Google’s monopolistic practices are forcing us to be more innovative.
We already had several commercial actions in the pipeline, the 2 most important ones being the following:
- a revision of our home page in order to make our story easier to understand. You can have a look at the draft wireframe here
- building up “TheEvilData” landing and infographics showing you the list of trackers and websites that are worst in class based on our users’ browsing data
- drawing how advertisers and data brokers think we are based on the browsing data that we collect
Google hurdles have made us think about these other actions (linked to the corresponding github issue):
- building a firefox extension
- making the service more engaging by letting users vote for the projects they want to fund. This will probably make us stop working with Zidisha, since they don’t have an API and the breadth of projects is a little more limited than others like justgiving, ammando or globalgiving
- looking for sponsors that want to donate some money for the data users have browsed, in a similar way that Charity Miles is sponsored by companies that rewards miles run by their supporters. This will be a temporary solution until we gain enough volume to deal directly with data buyers without putting the extension at risk of being banned again.
Until we find some companies or organisations that want to sponsor users data there will be some private sponsors that will donate the following amounts:
- 1 USD cent per query made by our users
- 1 USD cent per 100 sites visited by our users
What do you think about those actions? Should we do anything else? We would be glad to get your ideas!