Where co-operatives and open data meet…

[Summary: thoughts on ways in which co-operatives could engage with open data]

With the paper I worked on with Web Science Trust for Nominet Trust on ‘Open Data and Charities‘ just released (find the PDF for download here), and this post on ‘Open Data and Co-operatives’ it might feel like I’m just churning through a formula for working on ‘organisation structure’ + ‘open data’ for writing articles and blog posts. It is however, just a fortuitous co-incidence of timing, thanks to a great event organised today by Open Data Manchester and Co-operatives UK.

The event was a workshop on ‘Co-operative business models for open data‘ and involved an exploration of some of the different ways in which co-operatives might have a role to play in creating, sharing and managing open data resources. Below are my notes from some of the presentations and discussions, and some added reflections jotted down during this write-up.

What are co-operatives?

Many people in the UK are familiar with the high-street retail co-operative; but there are thousands more co-operatives in the UK active in all sectors of the economy; and the co-operative is a business form established right across the world.

The co-operative is a model of business ownership and governance. Unlike limited or public companies which are owned and essential run in the interests of their shareholders, co-operatives are owned by their members, and are run in the interest of those members. Co-ops legal expert Ged explained this still leaves a vast range of possible governance models for co-ops, depending on who the members are, and how they are structured. For example, the retail coop is a ‘Consumers’ co-operative, where shoppers who use its services can become members and have a say in the governance of the institution. By contrast, the John Lewis Partnership is an employee owned, or ‘producer’ co-operative, which is run for the collective benefit of its staff. Some co-operatives are jointly owned by producers and consumers, and others, like Co-ops UK are owned by their member organisations – existing to provide a service to other co-ops.

There’s been a lot of focus on co-ops in recent years. This year is UN Year of the Co-operative, and the current UK Government has talked a lot about mutualisation of public services.

What do co-operatives have to do with open data?

There are many different perspectives on what open data is, but at its most basic, open data involves making datasets accessible online, in standard formats, and under licenses that allow them to be re-used. In discussions we explored a range of ways in which co-operative structures might meet open data.

Share: Co-operatives sharing data

As businesses, co-operatives have a wide range of data they might consider making available as open data. Discussions in today’s workshop highlighted the wide variety of possible data: from locations of retail coop outlets, to energy usage data gathered by an energy co-operative, or turnstile data from a co-operative football club.

Co-operatives might also hold datasets that contain personal or commercially sensitive data, such as the records held by the co-operative bank, or the shopping data held by the retail co-operative, but that could be used to generate derived datasets that could be made openly available to support innovation, or to inform action on key social challenges.

There are a number of motivations for co-ops to release data as open data:

  • Firstly, releasing data may allow others to re-use it in a way that benefits the coop economy. For example, Co-operatives UK recently released a mobile app for locating a wide range of co-ops and retail outlets. If the data for this was also available, third parties could build information on coop services into their own apps, tools and services, potentially increasing awareness of co-operatives.
  • Secondly, sharing data might support the wider social aims of a co-operative. For example, an energy co-operative might have gathered lots of data on the sorts of renewable energy sources that work in different settings, and sharing this data openly would support other people working on sustainable energy to make better choices; or retail co-operatives might share information on the grants they give to community groups in a structured form in a way that would support them to better target resources on areas with the most impact.
  • Thirdly, transparency, accountability and trust might be important drivers for co-ops to release data – with open data supporting new models of co-operative governance. For example, co-ops might release detailed financial information as open data to allow their members to understand their performance, or to analyse staff remuneration. Or a coop might provide aggregate data on its supply chain to show how it is improving the percentage of supplies from other co-operatives or from Fairtrade suppliers. For public service co-operatives, like the Youth Mutual forming in Lambeth, it may be important to publish structured data on how public money is being spent, ensuring that the contracting out of services through co-operatives does not undermine the local authority spending transparency that has been established over recent years.


Collaborate: Co-operatives as data sharing clubs

Discussions also looked at how we can put data into co-operatives, rather than get data out. A lot of the open data agenda so far has focussed on open data from government (OGD), but often the data needed to answer key questions comes from a variety of stakeholders, including governments, community groups and individuals.

Co-operatives could provide a model to manage the ownership of shared data resources. Most open data licenses are still based upon data being owned somewhere (apart from CC-zero, and Public Domain Dedications which effectively waive ownership rights over a dataset). Co-operatives can provide a model for ownership of open data resources, giving different stakeholders a say in how shared data is managed. For example, if government releases a dataset of public transport provision, and invites citizens and organisations to take part in crowdsourced improvement of the data, people may be reluctant to contribute if the data is just going back into state ownership. However, if contributors to the improved dataset also gain a shared stake in ownership of that enhanced data, they may be more interested in giving their input. This was an issue that came up at the PMOD conference in Brussels last month.

We also discussed how co-operative structures could provide a vehicle for combining open and private data, or for the limited pooling of private data. For example, under the MiData programme, government is working to give citizens better access to their personal data from corporations, such as phone and energy companies. Pooling their personal data (in secure, non-open ways) could allow consumers to get better deals on products or to engage in collective purchasing. Undoubtedly private companies will emerge offering services based on pooled personal data, but where this sort of activity takes place through co-operative structures, consumers sharing their data can have a guarantee that the benefits of the pooled data are being shared amongst the contributors to it, not appropriated by some private party.

Create and curate: Co-operative governance of datasets and portals

Linked to the idea of co-operatives as data sharing clubs, Julian Tait highlighted the potential for co-operative governance of data portals – taking a mutual approach to managing the meta-data and services that they provide.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, open data portals need to go beyond just listing datasets, to also be a hub of engagement – building the capacity of diverse groups to make use of data.

Ideas of joint producer and consumer co-operatives might also provide a means to involve users of data in deciding how data is created and collected. Choices made about data schemas, frequency of update etc. can have a big impact on what can be done with data – yet users of data are rarely involved in these choices.

Mobilise: Collaborating to add value to data

The claim is often implicitly or explicitly made that publishing this data will lead to all sort of benefits, from greater transparency, accountability and trust, to innovation and economic growth.

However, looked at in detail, we find that there are many elements to the value chain between raw open data and social or economic value. Data may need cleaning, linking, contextualising, analysing and interpreting before it can be effectively used. In talking about the Swirl business model for open data, Ric Roberts explained that if you charge too early on in the value chain for data, it will be underused. However, efforts to add value to data in the open can suffer a public good problem – everyone benefits, but no-one wants to cover the full cost alone. If everyone duplicates the tasks involved in adding value to data, less will be done – so establishing co-operative structures around data in particular areas or sectors might provide a means to pool efforts on improving data, adding value, and generating shared tools and services with data that can benefit all the members of a coop.

This might be something we explore in thinking about a ‘commissioning fund’ around the International Aid Transparency Initiative to help different stakeholders in IATI to pool resources to develop useful tools and services based on the data.

Where next?

We ended today’s workshop by setting up a Google Document to develop a short paper on co-operatives and open data. You can find the draft here, and join in to help fill out a map of all the different ways co-ops could engage with open data, and to develop plans for some pilots and shared activities to explore the co-operative-opendata connection more.

Keep an eye on the Co-operative News ‘Open’ pages for more on the co-operative open data journey.