Data ownership. What it is, why it matters. Interview with Stuart Mills…

Who owns what data? Who owns the infrastructure on which data is created, transmitted, managed? And why should we care (because, it turns out, we really should)? Stuart Mills, a PhD student at MMU, has kindly submitted to CEM’s ‘sock-full-of-wet-sand’ interviewing technique, with great results…

1. Who are you, where are you from, what do you do, how long have you been in Manchester?

My name is Stuart (Mills), I am from Manchester, and have lived in the city all my life. I am currently a PhD student at Manchester Metropolitan University, specialising in behavioural economics and digital economy. My research looks at the intersection of behavioural economics and (sometimes big) data, and how data can be used to create personalised choice environments to influence people.

I also work extensively on alternative models of data ownership, specifically on the questions a) what models of data ownership can exist? And b) how do alternative models emerge? I currently contribute to a blog series on these themes and more for the UK Data Service Impact blog. My working paper on these themes is available here.

2. What concerns do you have, in general, around local plan, local urban development, climate issues, sustainability?

Local development and local government are not my speciality, though as an economist I of course have an opinion on these things. In recent years, Manchester has been one of the fastest growing cities in Europe. In principle this is a good thing, though we should be cautious about where the growth is coming from, both from the perspective of inequality and wealth (re)distribution, and from an environmental perspective.

A certain degree of Manchester’s growth is a spill-over effect due to London, with increasing house prices there forcing people (and thus investment) to other parts of the country:

Given part of the growth equation is purely based on population, more people living in the city should naturally lead to an expansion of economic output (but creates other problems which I’ll get onto). The most immediate question is, where will these people live? In response to this, Manchester has seen a significant housing boom. Yet, little affordable housing is being built, reproducing a gentrification effect that has been seen throughout cities around the globe:

On the housing boom:

On gentrification:

Gentrification is bad because it prices out those who have lived in an area their whole lives (and possibly families who have resided in a place for generations). Furthermore, additional and excessive construction can produce environmental damage, while a growing population places strain on local services, particularly transport. Finally, large-scale (often private) investment in property leaves communities vulnerable to economic shocks, as investment goes into property (which, during a crisis, causes a rush of supply and a collapse in property prices), and not into areas that produce economic output (classically, say, a factory, but in contemporary times, this may be something like broadband infrastructure or even office space). Such investment dynamics raise concerns about the fragility of Manchester’s economy; about the long-term viability of Manchester’s growth; and about the extractive qualities of investment in the city.

Of course, if there is demand for housing and no supply, prices will also go up, and will subsequently price people out. Thus, some supply of housing will always be necessary. But this doesn’t invalid three broad questions:

  1. Is the housing affordable for existing residents?
  2. Is investment going into areas that can ensure long-term economic growth and a stable local economy?
  3. And is the investment consistent with the desires and expectations of local people?

The third question is particularly relevant when we consider the climate emergency: if the Manchester economy is expanding but not greening, how can we possibly respond to the climate emergency? GMCA have placed sustainability at the heart of their economic and housing policy, so there are some encouraging signs – though, GMCA’s continued reliance on Manchester Airport as a central hub of economic growth seems somewhat antagonistic to any environmental agenda. But the maths on this is quite simple – an economy which is expanding cannot become carbon neutral unless the expansion produces a net reduction in carbon emissions (i.e. even if all expansion is carbon neutral, we would still have the initial starting point which was/is not carbon neutral).

I think public awareness in and around the city concerning the confluence of economic, social and environmental challenges facing Manchester is important to ensure promises and commitments are met, and that economic activity is distributed fairly.

3. Specifically, what do you advocate with regards to local control of digital infrastructure? What does that mean, why should we care? Isn’t google the answer to all our problems?

By digital infrastructure, I mean both the hardware and the software. This is an important distinction. The ‘software’ is a website or web service like Google or Facebook, while the hardware consists of the physical stuff these services need to function – cables in the ground, server farms, and computers etc. I would also add to this list data, though I will talk a bit more about this in a moment.

Things like laying internet cabling and making access to computers ubiquitous is the sort of thing that can be wrapped up in a local investment or industrial strategy. Right now the country is currently in lockdown due to COVID-19, and suddenly access to the internet seems even more important than ever. In a modern, highly digital society, internet access becomes a basic amenity, and just as we as citizens worry about good quality public transport to move our physical bodies around, so too should be worry about good quality broadband. When this comparison is made, we come up against all the same policy questions – who should own broadband providers, what profit should they be able to make, and how can we ensure less profitable areas are provided with access?

Or, consider the case of data. Data are weird. From general discussions with people, two conceptions of data stick in my mind. The first is of data as an amorphous blob that just exists in some place called cyberspace. The second is as a series off chunks or slices, where each slice corresponds neatly to a single individual. I think it’s no surprise that these descriptions broadly resemble the concepts of macro and microeconomics, respectively (i.e. we can talk of the economy as a whole, and of an individual within the economy). But just as the economy isn’t a clear dichotomy, neither are data. Data are things to be mixed and moved and manipulated.

An example will be helpful here. Consider Google Maps. It’s an excellent service that allows me to navigate around Manchester. To do so, the service draws on some data – specifically, data about Manchester. Where do these data come from? Some comes from the public domain; some from data Google have collected themselves via employees; and much from data Google extracts from users. For instance, if Google knows where I am, knows where I’m going, and knows my mode of transport, it can easily calculate the length of my journey, which could be useful for other travellers. By knowing where hundreds or thousands of users are at any moment, these insights become tremendously more powerful, with Google being able to estimate traffic congestion, delays, road closures and footfall. All of these things produce huge amounts of value for Google, but the value is created by people within a specific location, and most of the value comes from the data being used to navigate a specific location. Of course, mapping data and movement data have value outside of a specific geography (for instance, in machine learning or modelling population density), but most of the value originates from locality. (By way of a further example: modelling how people move around Manchester might be useful for predicting movement around London, but a map of Manchester is unlikely to help one navigate the streets of London. Again, data are weird)

Indeed, there is value in these data which companies like Google cannot extract, but would be very useful to local people. Immediately, planning city transport systems comes to mind. Of course, Google could sell transport and movement data to local government, or could even partner with local government or transport companies, but these practices would still be extracting value from the city is in inequitable way: data created by local people, which could be used to benefit local people, would be restricted unless value (i.e. money) was given to a company like Google, value which subsequently leaves the local economy.

To try and tie this back to the hardware and software labels, local ownership of both allows the benefits of information technologies to be kept within the local economy. Hardware such as smart tech on trams and buses allows local government to begin building up databases. Local ownership of other hardware, such as broadband and data servers, allows local government to build meaningful partnerships with local enterprise (for instance, a tech start-up could be given subsidised internet, in exchange for commitments to investment within the local area). Finally, and most exciting of all, local government control of digital infrastructure allows people much more control of their data and digital identities. Monitoring and surveillance are near ubiquitous in the modern age. These things aren’t inherently bad, but when they are bad, people are often powerless to protect themselves. Recent movements such as #DeleteFacebook, and recent scholarly work (including my own), have explored these power asymmetries, and champion a model of data ownership called a bottom-up data trust. Under such a model, third parties, say, Facebook, only receive access to data in exchange for some negotiated settlement (which could be commitments to privacy, or a financial payment).

As I have outlined in my work analysing #DeleteFacebook, the market forces which are present often mean grassroots organising cannot work, so there is an excellent opportunity for local government to step in and bolster the claims of digital citizenship. With local government in control of local digital infrastructure, the power asymmetry between residents of the city and a digital platform are greatly reduced. Furthermore, where platforms may in principle be excellent ideas, but in practices become tremendously harmful – typically gig economy platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo, and disruptive platforms such as AirBnB – local government becomes equipped with the technology to build comparable platforms which are owned and run for the benefit of those living within the city, while management remains held accountable and profit remains within the city region. Crucially, all of this can only happen if local government has the power to curtail the extractive power of digital platforms, or subsume the power of said platforms.

By way of a concluding example, let’s return to Google Maps. There is no reason why GMCA could not develop their own maps service for Greater Manchester, and integrate important details such as local transport timetables or sporting events (things which Google can also do, but might not intuitively do, because Google does not have a GM-only focus). Businesses could pay to feature in the app, and those payments flow to local government for re-investment in Greater Manchester, rather than being extracted to Silicon Valley. Furthermore, GMCA could use a service like this as part of an industrial strategy to promote growth in regions and sectors – something which could be very useful in tackling inequality within Greater Manchester. Finally, with tech playing such a significant role in Manchester’s recent boom, the city has local talent to draw upon, while such local government investment acts as a vehicle to retain such talent during downturns, in effective contributing to a strategy of making GM’s economy more anti-fragile.

4. If people want to learn more about these issues of local control of digital infrastructure, what would you recommend they do (i.e. what to read, who to follow on Twitter, events to go to, organisations to join)?

 I mean, follow me (@stuart_mmills), obviously…

But seriously, a key first step to any movement surrounding local control of digital infrastructure must be to understand digital infrastructure and digital citizenship. Manchester has some great initiatives; I would recommend, for instance, Open Data Manchester, (@opendatamcr) who are currently developing a Declaration for Responsible and Intelligent Data Practice specifically for GM.

I am also a big fan of Sylvie Delacroix (@SylvieDelacroix) and Neil Lawrence (@lawrennd) who have done some great work on Bottom-Up Data Trusts. Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek (@n_srnck) is a great introduction to digital economy, and for a more society and city-centric account, Jose van Dijck (@jvdijck), Thomas Poell (@tpoell) and Martijn de Waal’s (@martijndewaal) The Platform Society is also great. Finally, Commonwealth (@cmmonwealth) and the Open Data Institute (@odihq) are doing some great work on alternative models of data ownership.

Many of these organisations regularly put events on which I’m sure will be of interest.

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