Land and data for the common good

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How can civic trusts help to reform data governance, 800 years after the Charter of the Forest.
7 Nov, 2017

“Gen Maitland Hudson, Head of Evaluation and Impact Assessment”

Gen Maitland Hudson, Head of Evaluation and Impact Assessment

Yesterday marked the 800th anniversary of the Charter of the Forest.

In its 17 articles, the charter enshrined rights of access to the commons of the forests, pushing back the boundaries of royal land and containing royal prerogative. The document also guarantees the rights of free men and women to access the common goods of the woodlands, from fishing and grazing livestock, to collecting honey.

The Charter reminds us of the importance of securing access and use of tangible common goods such as the pasture, water and wood so crucial to medieval livelihoods. Access to outdoor space remains important, not least as austerity bites into budgets for parks, but we should also be thinking about how we secure access and use of more intangible assets for the common good, not only because access is a benefit in itself, but because it develops civic agency and the means not only of experiencing, but actively, and democratically, managing public goods, for public benefit.

Much of the revived discourse of the commons has come from the development of common pool resources over the Internet. This includes software systems like Linux, and the distributed knowledge network of Wikipedia. What has been far less effectively secured is both access to, and use of, data.

Data is an intangible common good that we tend to try and treat as an individual tangible asset. This lies behind many data protection regulations, and the EU right, for instance, to delete links from search engines. Data doesn’t really work like this, however. It’s not very easy to do, nor will it ultimately safeguard those most likely to be vulnerable to data mismanagement. When we treat information shared through digital systems as individual information items ‘owned’ by individual people who must each manage that data in sufficiently informed and robust ways, we make it harder than it should be to contain any leakage or misuse.

There have been some worrying recent examples of data being woefully mismanaged on a large scale in ways that could not have been contained by individual citizen action.

Then too, this only deals with the effective ‘policing’ of data, and the management of privacy. It doesn’t secure access and use rights to data producers, whose information is easily monetised by private platforms, but is harder to make use of as part of coordinated civic action.

“With civic trusts, we may be able to build the companies that we can trust to keep their promises, which seems like a pretty basic requirement for those who will own the platforms, networks, and technologies we rely on to build the future.” (Sean McDonald, CEO of Frontline SMS)

Some open data activists in the UK have expanded the range of useful public sector information that can be accessed by citizens, and used for new purposes. This includes all kinds of applications, from the Open Prescribing project, to this map of all the UK roads ending in Garth. There are further examples of how data can support community action in our Community Data paper, authored by Giuseppe Solazzo and Mark Braggins, which is published tomorrow. That paper, however, also shows how limited this kind of work still is, and how far we are from the forms of data governance that we need.

Many existing projects expand access, and promote the use of reliable, anonymised data for civic ends. They don’t, however, in themselves offer a solution to the problem of collective governance that is posed by data, as it is by all forms of commons. We need to explore ways of governing the commons of data that promote wider participation and distribute power amongst those who are not regular users, perhaps not even users at all, of GitHub, an open source platform for software developers.

One option that receives a good bit of – albeit rather vague – attention in the government’s recent review on Artificial Intelligence, is a data version of a civic trust. Civic trusts offer a means of bringing public governance into the management of data, and ensuring that data producers, and users, are considered alongside utility and profit maximisation in the decisions taken by government and large private data companies.

Civic trusts might do some of the same kind of work for data as the Charter of the Forests did for medieval woodland, securing wider access, on fair terms, for all free men and women, pushing back the boundaries of central government and large companies, and containing their ability to interfere in our lives. In the words of Sean McDonald: “With trusts, we may be able to build the companies that we can trust to keep their promises — which seems like a pretty basic requirement for those who will own the platforms, networks, and technologies we rely on to build the future.”


Sean McDonald will be joining the Power to Change data panel at the Locality Convention ’17 on 14 November. Come along and find out more about the potential of civic trusts to reform data governance.