Elinor Ostrom and data infrastructure

One of the topics that most interests me at the moment is how we design systems and organisations that contribute to the creation and maintenance of the open data commons.

This is more than a purely academic interest. If we can understand the characteristics of successful open data projects like Open Street Map or Musicbrainz then we could replicate them in other areas. My hope is that we may be able to define a useful tool-kit of organisational and technical design patterns that make it more likely for other similar projects to proceed. These patterns might also give us a way to evaluate and improve other existing systems.

A lot of the current discussion around this topic is going on under the “data infrastructure” heading. Also related is the idea of open data as a public good.

While I believe that open data is a public good, I do wonder whether particular styles of data infrastructure and licensing arrangements mean that data might sometimes be a club good. But lots more thinking and reading to be done there. Economics isn’t my area of expertise.

That said, if you’re interested in data infrastructure then I’d recommend looking at the work of Elinor Ostrom. She received a Nobel Prize for her research exploring how communities self-organise to managing the commons. Her work was instrumental in debunking the idea of the “tragedy of the commons”.

A key outcome of Ostrom’s work was the definition of 8 principles for designing organisations that manage common-pool resources. While her focus was on common-pool resources rather than public goods, the principles define a framework that can be applied more generally. And, as this article on the influences of Ostrom’s work notes, “any group whose members must work together to achieve a common goal is vulnerable to self-serving behaviors and should benefit from the same principles“.

The Open Data Institute have defined some high-level principles for strengthening data infrastructure. These include working in the open, designing collaborative models, building with the web, and balancing stakeholder interests.

I think you can usefully read Ostrom’s principles as more detailed guidance for how to create digital communities that collaborate to create and maintain open data. In fact if you’ve been part of any online community or taken part in community-building activities, I think those principles should resonate pretty strongly.

As an illustration, here are each of the principles and some suggested questions that are relevant to digital communities and open data. Ostrom highlights that communities will have:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries (clear definition of the contents of the common pool resource and effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties)
    • what is the purpose of the data infrastructure?
    • what community does it serve, and how are they identified?
    • what are the key data assets that the infrastructure will produce?
    • when will it’s mission be complete?
  2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
    • how are the data assets and guidance provided by the community licensed?
    • what are the forms of attribution and other social norms that apply to use of the resources?
    • what are the guidelines that apply to contributions from the community?
    • how are new contributors guided towards becoming productive members of the community?
    • what are the means by which people can access and reuse the data?
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
    • how does the community share ideas about how the infrastructure should evolve?
    • what are the decision making processes and the tools used to support them?
    • if poor quality data is added, how is this discussed, highlighted and improved?
    • how are differences of opinion, or innovative ideas relating to e.g. data modelling or organisation issues, discussed within the community?
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
    • how are contributions to the data assets managed or reviewed by moderators?
    • how does the community measure its progress and activity?
    • how are moderators identified and promoted? how might their privileges be removed?
    • how are good uses of the infrastructure showcased?
    • what metrics are available to measure data quality, coverage, etc?
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
    • how is spam and other wilful misuse identified and dealt with?
    • how is abusive behaviour dealt with?
    • how does the community document and share its norms?
    • what are the means by which contributors gain or lose privileges?
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
    • what process are used to resolve debates and make decisions?
    • how can data quality issues be flagged and address?
    • what are the mechanisms by which community members can share their opinions, or have their voice heard?
    • how are the results of debate and key decisions recorded?
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
    • what type of organisation is used to manage the community resources?
    • what is the process by which other organisations engage with the community and/or its representatives?
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources, organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level
    • how does the community interact with other similar initiatives, e.g. in a sector or broader community?

Most importantly implementing a viable digital community for managing the data commons means that we must build with the web, which is another of the ODI’s principles.

As ever, if you have thoughts then let me know!

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