Episode #1: Common Futures, Digital Assets and Data Coops

On November 22, 2013 I interviewed Annemarie Naylor, Director of Common Futures for the first OK Cast podcast. Unfortunately, due to some last-minute change ups (my error, due to a timezone botch and recording tech switch on my part), the technology I prepared to make the recording work didn’t end up functioning correctly and I only got my voice (I could have made it work if it was the other way around). I’m very sad about the loss of this recording because the interview with Annemarie was extremely powerful and much better said in her own words. My apologies in particular to Annemarie, who took time out of her day to talk with me and didn’t end up with a new podcast out of the deal. In an effort to at least cover what we talked about as best as possible, I’m writing from my notes and our conversation as much as I can an outline of our interview. I’ve asked Annemarie to review this before posting and to add anything she thought was missing.

Our interview began by discussing the origins of Common Futures.

The organisation came about as a result of Annemarie’s work for Locality nurturing community asset ownership in the UK. For folks in the U.S. who haven’t heard of these kinds of efforts, the basic idea is that communities acquire then manage land, buildings and other capital infrastructure. Ordinarily, they use the assets to generate an independent revenue stream through enterprise activities as well as to deliver a public benefit mission in keeping with local aspirations. Community asset ownership, while serving to better the community and its interests, is not then what we would term a “philanthropic” exercise: instead, it underpins local control over resources and, with that, the resilience and evolution of communities at a neighbourhood level.

In the UK, broad-ranging assets – from youth and community centres to libraries, managed workspace and, even, piers and ports – are being taken over by communities in this fashion.

Annemarie and I discussed the differences between policies in the US and in the UK that help enable community asset ownership. In the UK, the General Disposal Consent (2003) empowers municipalities to transfer land and buildings at less than market value to communities where they demonstrate the potential to further social, economic or environmental well-being: http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/community-asset-transfer/ Equally, the Localism Act (2011) contains provisions for a ‘community right to bid’, whereby communities can nominate public as well as privately owned ‘assets of community value’, then, trigger a six month moratorium in the event that they come up for sale so that they’ve the time to raise the full purchase price: http://mycommunityrights.org.uk/community-right-to-bid/ Other, lesser known routes to community ownership in the UK include meanwhile uses, the community right to reclaim land and compulsory purchase for communities: http://www.local.gov.uk/publications/-/journal_content/56/10180/3737596/PUBLICATION

Annemarie and I went on to talk about the Settlement Movement that has been part of community social change for over a century, as well as the burgeoning social entrepreneurship movement. But, as far as we’re aware, there aren’t kindred mechanisms or a comparable neighbourhood movement in the U.S. – at least, not ones that are as well-developed. In contrast, over the course of the past decade, Locality members have emerged as a bona fide movement for social change right across the United Kingdom. This is encouraging a growing number of communities to take control of land and buildings.

Annemarie spotted a gap in the provision of advice and support where communities and what she refers to as “digital asset ownership and digital enterprise” is concerned a few years ago now. Common Futures was established to explore this potential growth area in greater depth.

Community Ownership of #DigitalAssets & #DigitalEnterprise

As one example of the work on digital assets and enterprise, Annemarie talked about a community she is working with in a rural and coastal area of the UK. The community benefits from 15,000 visitors every summer to view local archeological sites. However, though this community gets a lot of visitors during tourist season, during off times, there are very few visitors. The community wanted to develop a way for people to stay engaged over the remainder of the year. In the #OpenData mindset, the community might have created open maps, photographs, and other tools for browsing artifacts available in the community and exploring them in different ways. However, while this resource might encourage increased foot traffic at peak times, it would do little to support the community during the remainder of the year. Instead, the community collaboratively opted to explore the potential to develop a smartphone app that would allow users to view and interact with the area from a distance as well as for people on site to contribute to the app.

Halfway through community conversations, folks realized that there was poor Internet and mobile device access in the community, so an app that depended on access would not function well in the locale. So, the Lyme Regis Development Trust and Guifi.net began developing an open and community owned wireless network. Similar projects are now underway in a number of communities and include the Digital Lyme, Digital Merthyr, Digital Caterham and Digital Dales initiatives. In the US, there are a number of parallel initiatives – notably, Red Hook Wifi.

In other projects Annemarie has supported, she talked about working with community managed libraries. As part of developing a library offer in community hands, one of them began showing movies once a week. At the exit doors, they stationed books related to the films. Book rentals and readership increased drastically. Now, Common Futures is working with The Creative Coop and Colchester School of Art to establish a library~hack~maker space (the origins of which can be read about here), as a test bed for library service transformation allied to the development of digital assets and enterprise. All of this work is designed to build local access to and collective ownership of local knowledge and know-how (or, intellectual property) on behalf of the community.

#OpenData and #OpenKnowledge

When I asked Annemarie about #opendata, she had a mixed reaction, echoing the sentiments of the Open Knowledge Foundation. In particular, she said: we need to consider two things when looking at open data – release and use.

Public open data is making data available that previously was not, and this can certainly aide greater transparency. The drawback of public open data in the UK, however, is that its goal — even the stated goal of the Government there — is to encourage growth through making more data available. Unfortunately, only those with the right skills, knowledge and resources are well-placed to request then access and analyse the open data. More often than not, those that are well-placed and who have access are private corporations and researchers – not regular citizens. So, is the public generally is losing what could otherwise be harnessed in the form of contemporary or digital (community) assets and leveraged for public benefit?

Annemarie and I went on to talk about the ways in which open data tends to forget where it comes from. Data is never neutral — what we choose to collect, who collects it, and how it is collected are all decisions made by individuals, organizations and governments. In the example I’ve used before, crime data collected by city governments is not “neutral” data. In open data communities, this is often assumed and this data is used to build projects considered useful, like those that help pick a neighborhood to live in based on crime data. Unfortunately, these types of projects typically operate as though this data is simply the truth. However, crime data has numerous important biases, including that it is collected by police who tend to surveil some communities more than others (especially those that are poor and have large communities of color) and tend to show some crimes more than others (burglary and homicide, rather than financial crimes or fraud).  There are several reasons to be suspicious of open data as the movement is currently headed.

Data Coops

Annemarie is exploring the potential to establish “data coops”, as well as seeking to infuse the #opendata agenda with a more ‘ethical’ or ‘social’ perspective. I’d never heard of this idea before. The basic gist, as far as I understood, is that data could be gathered at the local level – kept in the hands of communities – then leveraged via collaboration to improve services, in the context of competitive contracting exercises and/or to better understand the ‘state of the community sector’. That way, rather than private enterprise using and leveraging data that is often collected and paid for by taxpayers or local communities, communities get more of a say about what data is collected, what problems it solves, and how it is used and managed.

This perspective stands as a challenge to open data movements. For those of us that are part of the movement and think of encouraging data as a way to give back–how do we also challenge ourselves to ask: who does it serve for this data to be open? Should we instead be investing our time in helping communities develop digital assets and data coops? Will these kinds of resources better serve the needs of local communities? How do we balance this change with the exciting and flashy use cases for open data that are demonstrated by some of the individuals and organizations that have driven the movement? Do we really need ‘smarter parking apps’ in our increasingly smart cities? Or, is there some way in which to leverage data for serious social impact?

At this TEDxBedford talk, Annemarie discusses her work on community asset ownership and #digitalassets

Mentors and Looking Ahead

Annemarie said that the work she is doing with Common Futures wouldn’t be possible were it not for the work of Locality and the opportunity to collaborate with them over a period of years. And, the work the work that Locality’s members are undertaking is inspiring. I certainly hope to go look up policies related to this kind of work in the U.S. (and welcome any comments with knowledge about similar work that is going on here).

“What’s next?” for Annemarie – well, the digital assets, enterprise and future libraries projects she’s working on like St. Botolph’s Waiting Room are liable to prove central…

My Reflections

Annemarie does work that is extremely inspiring–working with communities to gain ownership over their own resources, assets and data. It seems to me she is working on the forefront of a movement for change in the UK that sees communities taking control of and managing resources in its own best interests. One question I didn’t get to ask during the interview, but would have liked to know more about is: what would the UK look like if she was able to work with every community around the country?

I think the #opendata community has a lot to learn from the work of Common Futures. First and foremost, Annemarie challenges the idea that the open release of data is always necessarily a good thing by offering the alternative possibility that communities gain collective ownership over these data resources and make decisions for themselves about how the data should be used, thereby benefiting local communities. Second, I think Annemarie’s work questions the neutrality of #opendata, asking who it really serves and whether it can serve communities in real ways, rather than primarily researchers, techies, and private enterprise. Finally, I think this work pushes #opendata folks to consider what they are doing in their own communities, and what they might need to do to build toward better futures for communities that have historically and continue to be excluded from access to resources and capital.

You can reach Annemarie Naylor at @CommonFutrs and you can visit the Common Futures website at CommonFutures.eu.

Alex Fink

Editor & Host at The OKCast
In addition to hosting the OKCast, I am a Ph.D. student in Youth Studies at the University of Minnesota. I study methods of making research to document injustice and resistance available to young people to create social change. My particular focus is on the political economy and ecology of data, including data collection, data use, data access/sharing, data economics, and the ideologies surrounding it.
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