We need the right data institutions

Popular Science have recently published three pieces of speculative fiction exploring the question of “will ‘we the people’ benefit from our data?”.

They’re called “Shared data“, “The Memory of Tomatoes” and “Home@Heart“. Each of the pieces of fiction is followed up a response from a policy expert.

I read the first of these this morning. It imagines a future in which living through climate change means dealing with complex and predatory insurance companies. In the story, a data cooperative is helping a community successfully challenge those organisations, allowing the members of the collaborative to pool insights, challenge decisions and so on.

Good speculative fiction should be thought-provoking.

What this story made me think is not “yes, we need more data cooperative, they’re essential to rebalancing power“. It was “we need less capitalism, not put up more defenses against it“.

To put this differently: to what extent is work on developing new governance models, like cooperatives and trusts actually leaning into the existing system, versus creating widespread and necessary change?

I guess we obviously need both to happen. But it’s challenged me to think more about the longer-term impacts of some of these governance models.

If you search for “Data Unions” at the moment what you’ll find is mostly frameworks for monetizing personal data. That’s not the quite the future I’d like from more collective control over data about us.

Perhaps different people conceptualise data cooperatives in different ways? Defining these models, so we can talk about them sensibly, is hard.

I followed up reading that story with this blog post about the need for new data institutions. I broadly agree on the premise but I think the post opens with a strawman.

The post describes a future in which there is a combinatorial explosion of data sharing between organisations. This, naturally, creates a complex data ecosystem for everyone to navigate.

The presented solution to that is to introduce an intermediary: the personal data store (PDS).

But introducing intermediaries is the proven solution to these many-many sharing scenarios. It’s a well-worn path. The question is what type of intermediary do we want? Personal data stores are just one answer.

There are intermediaries that are run by, and for:

  • the organisations doing the sharing – this is essentially the current landscape
  • specific communities
  • the individual – this is the personal data store vision

Each of these different intermediaries is solving different problems for different sets of users. They will be exposed to different pressures based on the existing systems into which they are introduced. They will have different impacts.

The important questions are about how we choose between different options.

We don’t just need new data institutions. We need the right ones. And building them shouldn’t draw attention away from advocating for more fundamental changes where we need it.