Text originally published with Mayo Fuster for CCBLab on 15/10/2018 [versió català / versión castellano]
The platform economy, a form of peer-to-peer, collaborative or sharing economy, can adopt very diverse models, which pose new challenges for society as well as new opportunities. From the commons models of free software communities or Wikipedia, based on the shared governance of communities, open knowledge and social responsibility, to the extractivist models of Uber or Deliveroo, with a form of governance that follows an extractivist logic, with closed technology and causing disruptive impacts, at the same time generating considerable controversies (like that seen recently in the taxi sector, for example).
A distinctive element of both models can be found in their data policies. An open data policy guarantees communities transparency, and access to the value that has been generated in the platform’s interactions. But beyond the implications that data policies may have for the communities that interact with such platforms, in this text we want to invite readers to reflect on the implications for the whole of society of the data policies of collaborative economy platforms. We will focus on two spheres: public policies and research. It is not by chance that both are linked to the institutional field: in public policies a central role is played by government institutions, while research continues to be carried out mainly from the knowledge institutions par excellence, i.e. the universities.
By pointing out the importance of data policy (and specifically that of open data) in collaborative platforms for institutional action, we want to call attention to the need to generate new resources, new commons, for a sustainable model for the collaborative economy ecosystem. In The Wealth of Nations Adam Smith argued that the market without commons resources cannot operate; along the same lines, Yochai Benkler argues the same in The Wealth of Networks with respect to the digital environment. Without the commons of roads, it would be difficult to imagine physical mobility, and the same thing occurs in the digital environment: without commons as data connection nodes, data commons at the service of institutions, the market and society, the collaborative economy ecosystem becomes difficult to sustain, and it drifts towards a horizon of disempowering and extractive impacts, with implications in many fields.
Data practices in the collaborative economy
For the one part, we find the models that were the first to appear, like that of the aforementioned Wikipedia. These are based on an open data policy, where databases on interactions carried out on the platform are available for download. These types of commons models have generated economic activity from the data, such as the ecosystem of businesses around Wikipedia; this has enabled countless studies on the most diverse fields of research, from social preferences to the state of armed conflicts.
Other cases, such as that of Airbnb, are based on a closed data model. It is a well-known fact that this represents an element of tension with city authorities (since they have no way of knowing the platform’s volume of activity in their city, or whether it is respecting the regulations in force). It also causes problems with regard to the privacy and digital rights of the platform users. Beyond some data offered by Uber, the situation is that open and accessible data are scarce on the major disruptive platforms that concentrate this sector’s activity in cities.
With regard to palliating this deficient situation, pioneering and creative solutions have appeared. Such is the case of Inside Airbnb, which offers data obtained through web scraping or data harvesting of the Airbnb platform. Or the European project DECODE, which develops and provides infrastructures to guarantee that all of this emerging digital economy based around data (to date principally exploited for private purposes, often outside of basic ethical considerations), generated and compiled thanks to the interactions of citizens, is available for a broader social and communal use, as well as adequate privacy protection.