Why Your City Should Care About Data Cooperatives

Private platforms operating in US cities have increasingly extracted mountains of data that helps them influence local policy and shape cities’ built environments. Platforms like NextDoor, Airbnb, DoorDash, and Uber dominate the city landscape, and determine peoples’ ability to feel safe in their communities, to find affordable housing, to get food, and to access public transportation. 

Airbnb, which runs on neighborhood data to transform “up-and-coming” neighborhoods, funnels benefits to commercial hosts who run “ghost hotels” that in turn decrease available housing stock, displace residents, and squeeze local governments to provide more affordable housing. In effect, Airbnb uses its privatized data about the real estate industry and neighborhood trends to shape the housing market itself, and gives very little back to local governments or to the wider community. 

Private platforms dominate by hoarding data about our cities, to shape how local policy decisions are made. In the process, these platforms disenfranchise Black people, poor people, immigrants, Indigenous communities, and others who are left out of capitalist visions of progress.

To reclaim control over their cities, residents and workers need cooperative solutions to govern the use of their data. My research as part of the ICDE fellowship will explore the enabling conditions for data cooperatives to operate in cities and ensure that community data — our data — is used for public good.  

How could communities benefit from local data cooperatives? 

Community data is a public asset and requires community governance. Cooperatives, trusts, or collaboratives that leverage data are helping people find career paths in their communities, gain access to childcare services, or analyze data about public utilities.

While promising, these examples are far and few between, and the enabling environments for these solutions have shifted along with local government priorities through the pandemic. A whitepaper published last year for the Aapti Institute’s Data Economy Lab by Julian Tait, co-founder and CEO of Open Data Manchester stated, “We need trustworthy organizations to help us take greater control of our data, allowing people to make real choices about how it is used, and to build trust and confidence in good data practices and the solutions derived from them.” 

Data intermediary organizations like Open Data Manchester can take care of data on behalf of data constituents, to create “fairer and more equitable uses of personal data, and the other data we create,” as Tait writes. Cooperative structures can ensure that these organizations are actually distributing the benefits from and decision-making around the use of data to their members. 

Platform cooperatives that tackle collective data can gather data from their communities, and let them decide how that data is used. Individuals and communities might have more opportunities to step in and champion cooperative solutions that address the real concerns of their constituents if they are able to collaborate to govern the use of their own data.

What do data cooperatives look like in US cities? 

While globally there are platform cooperatives and other organizations experimenting with data stewardship and alternative data governance approaches, local data intermediaries in the US still face significant political and structural challenges. 

My work with state and local governments in the US has showed me that not enough civic institutions are experimenting with new ways to help communities govern public data. Most local governments in the US are in the early stages of establishing digital innovation programs, which focus heavily on using human-centered design to improve community engagement. 

As a result, many communities don’t have the tools or resources to build data cooperatives that might challenge the dominance of private platforms in using data to shape cities.

On an initial scan, it appears that certain policy spaces are more fruitful for cooperative experimentation than others. Regulation can play an important role in creating space for communities to decide how data is used. 

 For example, rideshare and short-term rental platforms, which are already dominated by big tech players who leverage massive amounts of data to edge local governments out of decision-making in the policy space, might not be promising spaces for local governments to support experimentation. 

But community health and public utilities, for example, are spaces where governments still have regulatory control and might better support cooperative solutions. The Affordable Care Act of 2010 broadened existing mandates for hospitals and healthcare institutions to collect data for and about their communities. Community health providers are now required to collectively report health data to map communities’ social determinants of health at aggregate levels. This regulation made space for efforts like the RECoDE project, which leveraged this mandate to convene community health providers to begin generating frameworks for collaborative data ecosystems around health and community well-being at the local level.

As long as local governments overlook the potential communities have to make public data meaningful and impactful, they’ll miss out on opportunities to build cooperative solutions, governed by communities, to solve the most pressing challenges in front of us today, especially if communities in US cities believe that public systems are incapable of meeting their needs. People are experts in their own lives, and that expertise can be channeled through cooperative data to solve problems that matter.

How do we foster and grow local data cooperatives? 

With growing grassroots energy for social change, and an increasing skepticism about the roles of tech companies in building our futures, it’s an intriguing time to look to cooperatives for models that help communities build better futures. My hope is that this fellowship will help me map and explore the emerging elements that will make that future a reality.

My research over the coming months as an ICDE fellow will include a scan of existing cooperatives, collectives, or trusts operating inside and outside of the platform cooperative community to find out what support they need to thrive at the local level. I also plan to explore how successful cooperatives leverage data stewardship and principles of commons governance to ensure that people living in cities have opportunities to shape how data is used for public good.  

Experimentation around collaborative governance in urban development has shown that de-centering government and empowering the public and community institutions can lead to more equitable public learning. Building on these experiments, I hope to investigate how data cooperatives can rebalance power dynamics in cities, allowing people to learn about themselves and their communities while also using data to advocate for policy and practical solutions in their own best interests.