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The 13 commandments of bicycle data commons

11th March 2019

Managing traffic has long been a significant challenge for cities, and, as cities get bigger and busier, demand is rising for all types of mobility — from train to bike to plane. Shared bikes are flooding the city, unless they’ve been called to a halt, as Amsterdam did in 2017.

But what is a bike? New e-vehicles are being introduced one after another, such as self-balancing unicycles and electric kick scooters. We are in the midst of a hard-to-govern Cambrian explosion of new things on wheels, more often than not electric and ‘connected’. And if the vehicle itself is not online, our smartphones are. Unless you have taken precautions, your movements are known.

People want good and flexible mobility, so there is no sense in stopping the electrification and datafication of personal transportation. But how do we, as citizens, exert control over the way new innovations are brought into society? And how, particularly, do we manage the data used to drive these innovations in a safe and privacy respecting way? This issue was at the core of the event we at Waag organised in collaboration with the DataCommons association, Building a ‘Commons for Data’ lab, in June 2018.

The premise was to build ‘data commons’, a citizen-centric approach to data governance. Because, as Gerrit Jan van ’t Veen stated in his introduction, “maybe we want to share the data that we generate, or maybe not: either way, we would like to determine that for ourselves.” With that pitch, we got to work.

Some 25 participants convened in The Hague in a roomy, modern meeting space, littered with chairs, tables and flip charts. After a couple of introductory presentations, the audience split up into several groups to tackle different issues like rules, architecture, and organisational models. One person left, however: Gerrit Jan mounted his bike to traverse Holland’s political capital and generate data. His role was to be the ‘persona’ that informed the co-design process, providing a use case, an opinion, and a data set. Indeed, the intention was to build an actual commons for the data that we generate by cycling around, of which a demo was achieved by end of day.

Building a Data Commons at Border Sessions 2018. CC Daniël Steginga

Different components of data commons began to emerge through our discussions and designs. We focused particularly on carving out the procedures of a data commons organisation, which was in essence modelled as an association of citizens. A ‘statute’ (or more correctly, set of by-laws) would codify the elementary rules of participation and decision making. Members would be able to vote to determine what data from its members are shared, and how. Of course, members would be protected, through the GDPR by the principle that they individually control what data they disclose. But a data commons association would complement that right in a dual way. In practice, individuals have little influence on what is done with their data. Through a cooperative body, they would gain negotiating power vis-à-vis corporate data takers. On the other hand, a world of individuals sitting on their data with fists clenched does no good either. Therefore the members would agree on a minimum of sharing, a ‘core data set’ that they disclose — but on their own terms — with third parties. This is the minimum data resource needed to improve mobility and allow services to respond to the members’ needs and wishes.

This kind of rule is good, but perhaps not very enticing. To give the statute some oomph, the group drafted a manifesto, under the heading of ‘The 13 Commandments of Data Commons’. The writing was done under some time pressure, but the commandments are resounding nevertheless. They are:

  1. We believe that data can have a positive impact. We cooperate to harness data for the benefit of society.
  2. We think globally and act locally.
  3. We adhere to the principles of democracy, fairness and inclusiveness.
  4. We maintain and demand transparency of purpose of data use.
  5. We only cooperate with parties who subscribe to the principles of the Data Commons Manifesto.
  6. Those who use the Data Commons must agree to “Do No Harm”.
  7. We have no wish for Leviathans, nor Davids versus Goliaths. Creating a level field of opportunity and security is our priority.
  8. The data we harness always belongs to the data originator.
  9. Members have the right to leave at any time.
  10. We work by rotation of tasks, take care of dispute resolution, and we federate to cooperate.
  11. We do not allow our data to be abused. Those who abuse data from the Commons will be held accountable.
  12. The Commons establishes a network of trust both between members and external parties.
  13. Data cannot be relicensed, must keep their integrity, and should not be used for intentions other than those stated upfront by users.

If any take-away should be captured by this primeval manifesto, it is that data commons are at the same time generous and defensive. Data commons are driven by an ambition of sharing knowledge with the world, but this in particular requires a careful attitude. The data commons approach recognises that most data is sensitive and data can be put both to good uses and bad ones. Therefore we must approach data pools as commons : resources managed and protected by empowered communities, rather than left open for anyone to graze. As such, self-ownership of data, the inestimably important premise of the GDPR, is more likely to be supported in a commons rather than in a privatised model.

Admittedly, thirteen is not the sexiest number, and this set of commandments was drafted by a coincidental group of 25 gathering on a sunny day in The Hague. In other words, it’s just a very small first step. These early results did inspire us to take further initiative on data commons (for example a follow-up meeting in Amsterdam) and also fed into the DSI4EU and MUV projects, in which Waag participates. If you are interested in helping further the idea of data commons and actually build some, get in touch via DataCommons.nl or Waag.org.

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