Towards a data commons

Enric Senabre and Mayo Fuster Morell
Thursday 8th November 2018

The platform economy, a form of peer-to-peer, collaborative or sharing economy, can adopt very diverse models, which pose new challenges for society as well as new opportunities. From the commons models of free software communities or Wikipedia, based on the shared governance of communities, open knowledge and social responsibility, to the extractivist models of Uber or Deliveroo, with a form of governance that follows an extractivist logic, with closed technology and causing disruptive impacts, at the same time generating considerable controversies (like that seen recently in the taxi sector, for example).

A distinctive element of both models can be found in their data policies. An open data policy guarantees communities transparency, and access to the value that has been generated in the platform’s interactions. But beyond the implications that data policies may have for the communities that interact with such platforms, in this text we want to invite readers to reflect on the implications for the whole of society of the data policies of collaborative economy platforms. We will focus on two spheres: public policies and research. It is not by chance that both are linked to the institutional field: in public policies a central role is played by government institutions, while research continues to be carried out mainly from the knowledge institutions par excellence, i.e. the universities.

By pointing out the importance of data policy (and specifically that of open data) in collaborative platforms for institutional action, we want to call attention to the need to generate new resources, new commons, for a sustainable model for the collaborative economy ecosystem. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith argued that the market without commons resources cannot operate; along the same lines, Yochai Benkler argues the same in The Wealth of Networks with respect to the digital environment. Without the commons of roads, it would be difficult to imagine physical mobility, and the same thing occurs in the digital environment: without commons as data connection nodes, data commons at the service of institutions, the market and society, the collaborative economy ecosystem becomes difficult to sustain, and it drifts towards a horizon of disempowering and extractive impacts, with implications in many fields.

Data practicecs in the collaborative economy

For the one part, we find the models that were the first to appear, like that of the aforementioned Wikipedia. These are based on an open data policy, where databases on interactions carried out on the platform are available for download. These types of commons models have generated economic activity from the data, such as the ecosystem of businesses around Wikipedia; this has enabled countless studies on the most diverse fields of research, from social preferences to the state of armed conflicts.

Other cases, such as that of Airbnb, are based on a closed data model. It is a well-known fact that this represents an element of tension with city authorities (since they have no way of knowing the platform’s volume of activity in their city, or whether it is respecting the regulations in force). It also causes problems with regard to the privacy and digital rights of the platform users. Beyond some data offered by Uber, the situation is that open and accessible data are scarce on the major disruptive platforms that concentrate this sector’s activity in cities.

With regard to palliating this deficient situation, pioneering and creative solutions have appeared. Such is the case of Inside Airbnb, which offers data obtained through web scraping or data harvesting of the Airbnb platform. Or the European project DECODE, which develops and provides infrastructures to guarantee that all of this emerging digital economy based around data (to date principally exploited for private purposes, often outside of basic ethical considerations), generated and compiled thanks to the interactions of citizens, is available for a broader social and communal use, as well as adequate privacy protection.

Within the specific context of the city of Barcelona, a series of examples already exist on how the articulation of open data on economic alternatives or citizen participation is possible on a strategic, economic and technological level, also with support from the communities which it helps to empower. Thus, we find initiatives in the mapping of actors in the social, commons and solidarity economy (such as P2PvaluePam a Pam and Teixidora), environmental monitoring based on open sensors (Smart Citizen initiative), public statistics on civic crowdfunding (via platforms such as Goteo), and maps of points for citizen access to the Internet (Guifinet). Another example is the platform Decidim, an open participative democracy infrastructure with free code for citizens and organisations, undergoing constant evolution and that will launch a data sovereignty pilot within the framework of the DECODE project.

New, informed public policies

The lack of access to data from platforms that operate in the city makes their regulation very difficult, as well as any intervention to tackle the disruptive impacts that they generate or to take advantage of the opportunities that they offer. As we indicated, access to data is one of the main elements of tension between the platforms and public authorities. The defenders of closed data models argue the capacity for “self-regulation” of the large platforms, as proposed by Arun Sundararajan. Their main argument is based on the fact that since these major platforms have their own data, they are in a strategic position above the authorities, who would have to remain on the margins.

On the other hand, we also find those who point to the opportunity represented by open data for a more participative development of public policies, not by leaving the administration out, but by involving citizens to a greater extent. The alternatives to the various problems generated by platform economies include deploying a certain degree of experimentation in public policies and the promotion of new commons and open models, beyond restrictive regulations “against” the governing model of the great unicorn operators. This is the perspective that was debated and articulated together with different actors of the collaborative economy during Procommons in Barcelona in 2016 and 2017, in line with other forums on platform cooperativism in New York or such as Open Coop in London.

One of the conclusions points to the fact that the opening and analysis of data on the collaborative economy can play a fundamental part in accelerating the necessary understanding and decision-making by public authorities and agents, following in the wake of the open public data promotion begun by organisations such as BCN Open Data or The Data Place. For this, the next Sharing Cities Summit in this coming month of November (in Barcelona) will give priority to dealing with the need to draw up joint strategies to facilitate citizens being able to access, manage and participate in the governance of the data generated in their interactions with digital platforms and, also, in their economic dimension.

Social research-action

The second derivative that needs to be activated regarding the data that can be generated for and from the collaborative economy, as we analyse from Dimmons with a multidisciplinary perspective of the phenomenon, involves deploying cross-sector research action initiatives, which have an impact on the crossover of the digital with the so-called social economy. In this case the dilemma and urgency stem from a politically worrying asymmetry: on the one hand, extractivist platforms following the “unicorn” model, with a dominant position, provide data in a controlled (not open) way for favourable research that usually achieves a certain impact in the academic literature. On the other, research that criticises or throws up concerns regarding the impact of these companies is usually difficult and complex, because the scarce data available often do not comply with academic standards for validation. However, with the boom in practices such as citizens’ science, and some experiences in this field that understand the participation of different communities as being beyond the mere mass compilation of data (with leading examples such as OpenSystems and Public lab), a promising field is opened up in which (added to all the above) it is also possible to generate and share open data on the collaborative economy in cities.

A challenge that involves data culture

However, no technological and social deployment that involves data (open or not, in greater or larger volume, visualised better or worse, etc.) can aim to be understood or have effects on its own. Various perspectives point out, from academia and different development communities, that there is a necessary narrative around data, within the framework of an emerging culture that must evolve while algorithms or artificial intelligence accelerate the mass processing of the information that we generate. Data are dynamic and constantly changing, offering clues at all times about what is coming or what it would be interesting to correct. But a data culture that is only fed by technological, scientific or technical profiles and does not try to incorporate the largest possible number of points of view and problems, lacks the necessary basis to tackle the challenges of the social and economic transformation of the digital.

From the perspective of the city as a paradigmatic space of openness – questioning how its assets, its economic activity or its social demands are visualised in its physical layer and its digital layer – and as part of the Barcelona Biennial of Thought, from 15 to 22 October a series of meetings will be held around a core of open digital knowledge (curated by Mayo Fuster and Thais Ruiz) to debate on the governance and scope of data. A space for debate where, among others, it is possible to revisit the datathon format on 20 October at a trans-disciplinary meeting that we are organising from Dimmons and Liquen Data Lab together with communities around Wikipedia and the memory of collaborative co-creation in the city, especially that involving women. Being opened for the occasion, for example, will be the thesaurus of data linked to Barcelona street names. This is one meeting among various meetings for dealing with other questions, basic and complex alike, regarding what the democratic dimensions of data management and their connections with new knowledge and problems generate; thus contributing to a new commons culture around data, without which it does not seem possible to articulate alternatives.

Opening a data economy for the collaborative economy

For the diverse reasons we have presented, and following recommendations such as those from the latest Nesta report for DECODE, in this way we want to open this up to public debate and invite people to co-create a data commons on the collaborative economy, in order to help make it more sustainable. Still in a beta format, in a developmental phase and open to the creation of a consortium for its subsequent development, we think that a data commons around the collaborative economy, as a hub that systematises, articulates and helps to cross in a federated way sources of data, could be a valuable resource. A complementary strategy to those we have already citied, with a view to generating economic activity around data platforms, favouring a regulation that responds to the general interest and with more open formats for citizens, and at the same time that expands the potential for the research that is contained in the aggregation of open data, while tackling unethical practices in collaborative economy research.

This article was orinally posted on the Cultural Research and Innovation Lab website. 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.