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Platform Co-operativism Conference 2017

The People’s Disruption: Platform Co-ops for Global Challenges

 By Duncan Wallace

Watch the Conference presentation videos

Join the Platform Cooperativism Australia Working Group

The 2017 Platform Co-operativism Conference – the People’s Disruption – focussed on three issues: labour, technology and money.

Held over two days on the 10-11 of November, this was the first year that BCCM has had the privilege of acting as a sponsor to the event.

The following is a report of my experience of the conference and is in no way a comprehensive summary of the event. I focus on the technology (“Next Tech”) and labour (“Next Labour”) themes.

The Australian attendance at the conference this year was again strong. At least five of us attended – in addition to myself, there was Monique Potts, Deputy Director, Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Creative Intelligence at UTS; Jo McNeil, who is working on a funding proposal for a platform co-op research project at UNSW; Linda Seaborn, who works in economic development for the Government of Tasmania; and Julie Miller-Markoff, a co-founder of Australia’s first platform co-op bHive Bendigo.

Julie presented at the conference on the bHive model and its role in localising economic activity – watch the video of her conference presentation (at 49.00). See my presentation on platform co-ops in Australia.

Julie Miller-Markoff

Julie Miller-Markoff

Next Tech – Data

The increasing amounts of data we generate on digital platforms is valuable, and the more we generate, the more valuable it becomes. The idea that the people who generate the data ought to have some control over how it is used is a natural one, and is being acted upon all over the world.

An example from Australia is Data Farmer, an initiative of the Birchip Cropping Group in Victoria. Farmers produce a lot of data – yield levels; soil types; weather data – and Data Farmer is an attempt to ensure that the use of data benefits the farmers who produce it. The group are in the process of developing a platform to hold and analyse farmer-generated data, with the platform owned by farmers through a co-operative.

There is already a platform co-op in the US, similar to that envisaged by Data Farmer, called Grower Information Services Coop (GISC). GISC now has farmer-members across 41 states.

GISC’s founder, Billy Tiller, spoke at the conference as part of a breakout panel on Next Tech: AI and Big Data. He described how reading the terms of service of the AgTech he was purchasing for his farm operations led to his appreciation of the need for a data co-op. In agreeing to the terms of service, he was providing AgTech vendors with the rights to worldwide licenses to use his farm data in any way they pleased. He was receiving nothing in return for the relinquishment of such rights.

He emphasised that AgTech providers were going to look out for the best interests of their shareholders, and that farmers would lose out unless they were able to take back some degree of control over their data.

And this isn’t just the case for farmers, he urged. The terms of service of the platforms we use across the board are equally onerous, pointing to the need for data co-ops beyond just in agriculture. As indicated above, this is already happening. One of Tiller’s fellow panellists, Ulrich Genick, for example, was reporting on the work of MIDATA, a Swiss health data co-op he co-founded. A health data co-op would be an interesting alternative to the Australian government’s “My Health Record” initiative.

Billy Tiller

Billy Tiller

Next Tech – Infrastructure

As Nathan Schneider emphasised on day one, data is only one part of tech. Another is infrastructure.

In an engaging breakout panel called Next Tech: Co-operative Infrastructure, the first panellist, journalist and educator Ingrid Burrington, discussed her journey across America visiting the physical objects that make up the infrastructure of the internet (the excellent reports from her trip were published in The Atlantic). She also discussed her work developing classes, tools, games and resources to teach people about internet infrastructure. One example is a book, Networks of New York: An Internet Infrastructure Field Guide, which maps the physical manifestations of the internet in New York.

The second panellist was Jim Kennedy, an executive of media giant the Associated Press. The co-operative, membership of which is open to all media organisations in the US thanks to a 1945 Supreme Court ruling, produces content viewed by half the world’s population daily. The originating motivation for the co-operative, Kennedy reported, was the need to share the scarce telegraph infrastructure of the mid-1800s.

The third panellist, Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, spoke about the fact that internet infrastructure remains a scarce resource for many communities. Nearly 30% of Americans in rural areas lack access to the internet and paralleling the restrictions on the use of telegraph infrastructure in the 19th century, there are often time limits on how long people can use the internet in public libraries.

She suggested that an appropriate solution is the same one that American media organisations came up with when they faced scarce telegraph infrastructure: co-operatives.

This is something Nathan Schneider has written about recently. He points to a further historical example of co-operative solutions to scarce resources. At the time of the Great Depression, 90% of rural communities in the US had no access to electricity – power companies didn’t deem investment in rural areas profitable enough to justify extending them electricity services. With help from New Deal legislation, electricity co-operatives were formed and proved enormously successful, connecting the majority of rural communities to the network within 20 years. Schneider has suggested that current problems with internet service provision merit a similar response in the form of co-operatively or municipally owned internet services.

The role that all levels of government, from local municipalities right through, can play in helping this along was the focus of the fourth panellist, Hal Plotkin, a former adviser to the Obama administration. He spoke about the large levels of support government provides to private industry through their procurement policies. In fact, government is the single biggest purchaser of digital economy products and services in the US. We have options with our government’s procurement strategies, Plotkin said – we can use them to support investors, or we can use them to support communities through preference to local businesses and co-operatives.

What does this discussion suggest for Australia? Our internet infrastructure is of course currently being updated by the National Broadband Network Company, a government owned monopoly. What will happen to the NBN once it is completed? Last year the government agency Infrastructure Australia published a report recommending the government sell the NBN to private companies once the rollout is completed. This policy has bipartisan support.

Perhaps a different model should be pursued. The NBN, rather than being sold to investors or remaining in government hands, could be formed into a co-operative. In other words, it could be owned by the customers who use its services so ensuring that it is accountable to them. There is already political support for Public Service Mutuals – there is no reason such support shouldn’t extend to mutualised internet infrastructure.

Hal Plotkin speaks, with Ingrid Burrington on the left; Deb Socia and Jim Kennedy on the right.

Hal Plotkin speaks, with Ingrid Burrington on the left; Deb Socia and Jim Kennedy on the right.

Next Labour

 The Platform Co-op movement has its roots in attempts to address the labour conditions of workers in the platform-based gig economy, and this was once again a focus of the conference.

The first morning of day one looked at the potential for mutually beneficial relationships between platform co-ops and unions.

Michelle Miller from the labour organising platform CoWorker.org presented on the progress they’d made. For instance, 15% of the Starbucks workforce across more than 30 countries now communicate with it. Abby Solomon followed Miller with a presentation on Carina, an online union-created labour exchange.

The importance of remembering the roots of the platform co-op movement and the need to continue to focus on justice and equity in platform co-op design and operations was something brought up on multiple occasions at the public lecture at the end of day one, What Happened to the Future.

A reminder of this was given in the morning lecture on day two by Juliet Schor in her report of her study of the highly successful platform co-op, Stocksy. Stocksy is a stock photography platform whose members are the photographers who contribute the images. Schor found that the top 9 contributors to the platform earned the majority of the income, and that the distribution of income among members was more unequal than in the US as a whole. As well as Stocksy’s obvious positive attributes, such facts are worth paying attention to.

The issue of equity was further examined later that day in the breakout panel, Next Labour: Designing Platform Co-operatives in a Worker-Centred Way. One of the platform co-ops presented on in the session was Up & Go (at 27.30), which connects customers to worker co-operatives delivering professional house cleaning services.

Up & Go is a tactical intervention into worker co-operative development in New York, created with the purpose of providing worker co-operatives with the opportunity to scale.

Trebor Scholtz for good reason paid the platform particular attention in his recent keynote at Tenerife Colaborativa. Developed by the Centre for Family Life in Brooklyn, the story behind Up & Go, as well as of its broader context, is extremely interesting. It is the story of a decades long worker co-operative movement in New York whose achievements, though still modest, are encouraging.

I was fortunate enough to meet with some of the people and organisations involved in the movement in the week following the conference and their story will be the subject of the next blog in this series.

Thank you to Jo McNeil for kindly providing her comprehensive conference notes

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