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Creating Technology for Social Change
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Hiring a Technical Lead for Media Cloud

January 28, 2016 - 10:43am

Come help us build the next generation of tools to collect and understand online media coverage about issues that matter! Our MediaCloud project is hiring a Technical Lead to shape both the concept and contribute to the hands-on development of our existing tools, and new ones. This is an amazing chance to work on software that can directly impact our understanding of public health communication and gender norms online.

We're looking for someone to work with us locally here in Cambridge, MA, with experience in the following:

  • managing and building-out large software architectures for storing huge amounts of text data
  • leading a team of developers and designers, and good at delegating to them
  • communicating ideas to non-technical people
  • planning large architectures involving multiple technologies and software language

If you're interested, read the full job description for more details and to apply!

Categories: Blog

Monitoring, Explaining, and Intervening: Field Experiments and Social Justice

January 20, 2016 - 7:16pm

What role can field experiments and other causal research play in efforts toward social justice in social computing? Aren't experiments tools for reductionistic, top-down paternalism? How could causal inference ever support grassroots approaches to social justice?

This question is a central struggle in my effort to decide a dissertation topic. The idea of participatory experimentation motivated me to work on the cornhole experiment. It was also at the back of my mind in my talk on discrimination and other social problems online at the Platform Cooperativism conference (start at 1:00:30 mark). In this post, I outline my current thinking on this question.  I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

"A Peaceable Kingdom with Quakers Bearing Banners 1829-30" by Edward HicksI love Edward Hicks's paintings, which often show the cracks in ideas of utopia that differentiated between rights and roles for different people. 

The idea of human dignity--that all people are of equal worth and deserving equal treatment and respect--is a fundamental principle in liberal democracies. This idea of dignity sets the scope for the other fundamental rights, establishing a vision of society that promotes and advances the equal capability of all humans to fashion their own lives. Social justice research addresses the forces detracting from human dignity and advances the realization of social justice goals [41].

Because socio-technical systems of Human Computer Interaction(HCI) shape human affairs, they necessarily advance or detract from the realization of human dignity. For example, information systems have enabled oppression under apartheid [7], welfare management systems have undermined the dignity of the poor [15], government systems have removed people of color's right to vote [43], and advertising systems have carried out systematic discrimination [50], to name a few.

Social justice has also been a major motivation in HCI design and research [5,11,13,25]. A review of 30 years of work from one prominent lab yielded over 70 projects and publications linked with social justice [36]. Yet even when intentions are parallel to social justice goals, the outcomes of a deployment may fail to advance those goals and may even entrench existing problems [24,30].

Because even well-intentioned HCI projects have the potential to reproduce and expand injustices, especially when deployed at scale, researchers and designers attentive to social justice will necessarily have many causal questions. These questions include (a) monitoring systematic social problems, (b) identifying explanations for these problems, and (c) evaluating the outcomes of efforts to address those problems. Yet quantitative methods for causal inference like randomized controlled trials(RCTs) typically rely on paternalistic forms of power and surveillance, leading some to doubt whether RCTs are compatible with democracy [26].

In this post, I introduce the uses of causal inference to investigate problems and evaluate interventions towards social justice and human dignity. Next, I outline some of the risks introduced by experimentation. Finally, I outline early stage ideas for participatory field experiments that incorporate lessons from participatory design.

The Role of Causal Inference In Social Justice Work

From Betty Friedan's counts of women's presence in 1960s magazines [18] and studies of race and gender bias by juries [3] to economic models of discrimination [16], quantitative methods have expanded our awareness and understanding of systematic patterns of social injustice. Yet researchers using these correlational methods struggle when data is limited and where the causes of injustices are unclear.

This post considers two kind of research that ask these causal questions: field experiments and natural experiments [20]. All of these methods ask a counterfactual question of events outside the lab: what would have happened if things had been different? Causal methods ask this question by comparing measured outcomes between groups. Field experiments randomly assign subjects to comparison groups [21,29]. Natural experiments construct post hoc comparison groups from observational data [1].

Detecting Injustices

Field experiments are a primary method for investigating systematic discrimination when data is limited or differences in outcomes might be related to differences in selection. For example, employment discrimination can be hard to study observationally if a particular group is mostly absent from a sector suspected of discrimination. Aside from the lack of data, people in the absent group may simply be selecting other sectors. In those cases, audit studies use experimental methods to estimate differences in job and loan application outcomes for identical people who differ only by race or gender [42]. These studies can estimate the magnitude of discrimination on average, identifying just how much discrimination affects a person's chance to get a loan or job interview.

In HCI, field experiments ask traditional questions of discrimination alongside emerging issues unique to social computing. Audit studies have documented discrimination against dark-skinned users on classified ad platforms and on airbnb[1214]. Audit studies of HR systems have shown systematic discrimination against certain kinds of surnames [6]. 

Among questions unique to social computing, field experiments on videogames have shown that in some gaming communities, women receive more negative and hateful comments than men [32]. Other studies use experiments to investigate discrimination by machine learning systems [49]. Natural experiments are also used to detect social injustices online, including one work-in-progress study estimating the effect of mass surveillance on civic participation online [47].

Explaining Injustices

While audit studies help identify social injustices, they rarely reveal the underlying explanations. The work of advancing social justice requires theories of the causes of social problems so that the causes can be addressed. Social psychologists have long used lab experiments to test theories on the mechanisms behind behaviors like gender discrimination [27], methods that social computing researchers have adopted for field experimentation online [31]. Natural experiments can also test theories on the causes of social injustice; one work-in-progress study uses natural language processing in an observational study of DonorsChoose to estimate the role of gender stereotypes in the effects of platform design on gender discrimination [48].

Evaluating Social Justice Interventions

As a stance with normative goals, social justice research is fundamentally concerned with the outcomes of interventions to advance human dignity and justice. For example, social justice researchers do not stop at defining and understanding a problem like prejudice; they also evaluate the practical outcomes of prejudice reduction efforts [45].

Research on the social justice effects of technology interventions includes research on the effects of police-worn body cameras on police violence [2,33], the effect of digital, student-designed anti-conflict campaigns on school conflict [46], and the effect of peer pressure on government compliance with citizen appeals [52]. My own in-progress research is testing the effect of a self-tracking system on gender discrimination on social media [34].

Social justice interventions can also backfire or have side effects. For example, in some cases, efforts to defend a community from antisocial behavior can make that behavior worse [9]. In another case, research has linked the labor of reviewing and responding to violent materials online with secondary trauma [17,39]. Future causal research could help estimate the human cost of interventions, supporting decision-makers to limit or avoid these new problems introduced by social justice efforts.

Risks from Causal Inference Methods

Researchers who focus on social justice often have well-theorized skepticism towards causal methods, grounded in the limitations of quantitative research and the inequalities of power that often come with experimental research.

Measurement Problems

The difficulty of measuring meaningful outcomes is a fundamental weakness of all quantitative social justice research. For example, studies of discrimination often rely on classifications of race and gender that are theoretically weak, incorporating structural injustices into the research and making those injustices invisible to researchers [7,10,35]. More broadly, social computing and HCI research have a deficit of reliable dependent variables on issues of public interest compared to measures of productivity [38].

Participation and Deliberation

Quantitative researchers have a history of paternalism that ignores people's voices in favor of surveilling their behavior and forcing interventions into their lives [51]. For that reason, deliberative democracy theorists identify experimentation as a major risk to citizen participation and agency. Rhetoric from experimental results can override citizen deliberation and paternalistic policies could nudge away citizen agency [26]. In contrast with these paternalistic approaches, social justice HCI research has emphasized participatory methods that include participants as co-creators of the goals, design, and evaluation of social justice efforts [4].

Research Ethics

Field experiments are also at the heart of an ongoing debate over the ethics of HCI research [22]. In particular, research on issues of inequality and injustice often involve vulnerable populations and offer differential risks and benefits to participants [28]. While some scholars advocate for an obligation to experiment in cases of public interest [40], the work of maintaining and studying large online platforms raises ethics and accountability challenges for experimenters [8].

Participatory Field Experiments

I believe that some risks of causal inference in social justice work can be addressed by incorporating lessons from participatory and emancipatory action research [25] in the design of experiments.

First, quantitative research on social justice can employ qualitative research and participatory design. Methods of "experimental ethnography" structure qualitative research through an experimental design [44]. My own research on social movements at Microsoft this summer explored "participatory hypothesis testing," mixed-methods, participatory approaches to sampling, modeling, and interpreting quantitative research on social platforms [37].

Second, participatory methods can be used within the interventions that experimenters evaluate. In one field experiment, students were offered training and support to develop their own digital media campaigns; this intervention reduced conflict reports in schools while also testing theories related to the position of students within their social networks [46].

Third, marginalized groups are already using socio-technical systems to develop situated knowledge [23] on issues of labor rights, street harassment, and online governance [19]. A social justice approach to causal research might also expand access to experimental capacities, supporting marginalized groups to develop their own situated knowledge on causal questions.

Finally, experimental results need not override marginalized voices in policy debates. They just offer one more piece of evidence to deliberation. As I show participants in the cornhole experiment, even the cleanest experiment leaves plenty of questions for debate. In fact, research on discrimination in meetings may even expand participation and fairness in delibaration [26,27]. Other experiments could even test ways to expand citizen power in the face of paternalism. In one work in progress study, researchers conducted bottom-up experiments to optimize government compliance with citizen requests [52].


In this post, I have outlined ways that causal research is used for monitoring social injustices, understanding the causes of those injustices, and evaluating interventions to expand the realization of human dignity. While causal methods do introduce risks of reductionist paternalism, I have tried to sketch out possible directions for "participatory field experiments." By experimenting from the standpoint of citizens, we may be able to work through some of those risks.

What are your thoughts? I would love to hear your reactions in the comments.

Bibliography randomized trialsfield experimentsnatural experimentssocial justicediscriminationharassmentracismsexismprejudicefeminist HCItechnology solutions
Categories: Blog

Civics in an age of mistrust and decentralization

January 19, 2016 - 2:08am

I regularly coordinate a salon over at the New England Complex Systems Institute. For the January salon at NECSI, Ethan and Erhardt led a discussion and workshop on civics in a distributed society. We explored how people with influence/power/money try to create change in the world, how those affected by those changes view and respond to those attempts and changes, and also what we would do as people of influence/power/money.

Many thanks to Ethan and Erhardt for their valuable time and attention as well as images used in this blog entry, and to Erhardt especially for designing such a great workshop, and for suggesting edits to the blog itself. Y’all are pretty great. ❤ - w

Many people want to change the world. Leverage through money or power

Democracy as it tends to be generally practiced is the act of selecting people for positions of power, and then pressuring them through petitions, protests, and letters. Ethan remarks that this is a remarkably impoverished view. We also interact with governance and our social systems based on what we buy (and don’t buy), where we live, how we speak. However, today our trust is low, and not just in government, but in institutions as well; and not just in the US, but all over the world (see Figure 1). (note: The origins of distrust may be traced to the high complexity of society that makes centralized decision making ineffective.) Many of us would like to change the systems we live in to improve the world. What strategies are available to make such change?

Figure 1

Among those who are trying to make changes are individuals and foundations with large amounts of wealth who strive to act in ways that will improve the world according to their perspectives and understanding. What strategies do they use to exert influence? How successful are they at achieving their objectives? Examples ranging from the Koch brothers to George Soros provide some insight. They might invest in think tanks, in market-based interventions, in campaigns to affect public opinion to place pressure on courts and elected officials.

Regardless of whether an individual came to have influence through an electoral process or through access to wealth, Lawrence Lessig provides a framework in his book Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace on which most (if not all) change is attempted.

Four fulcrums
  • Laws are explicitly stated codes of behavior, created and enforced through governance systems.
  • Norms are often implicit social expectations, enforced through social pressure and assumptions of media and other communications.
  • Markets shape behavior by making some actions more or less expensive financially or time.
  • Architecture/Code are the frameworks that surround us and must be adhered to because we act within them. Today many of these frameworks are technological which might be called: the tyranny of the database, or how interfaces demand obedience.

How do you know if what you’re doing is working?

The enforcement of laws can be tracked. Market costs can be quantified. The use of an architecture implies success of its constraints (though choices of what architecture to use, and innovators, hackers and other reappropriators, provide freedom). Ethan and Erhardt primarily focus on changing norms. These are also arguably the most difficult to characterize and to discover if a hoped-for-change is occurring, as norms are often implicit, rather than explicit, and are distributed across the statements of individuals, groups and media sources. 

At the Center for Civic Media, they think about norms and the attention economy, and one way of seeing shifts in norms in this view is by tracking how the media talks about a topic. They use a tool called Media Cloud for gathering media sources, creating visualizations, and comparing the words used to talk about topics of discourse. For instance, Erhardt analyzed the dynamics of the media conversation around Trayvon Martin through the roles of broadcast and participatory social media.

In short, creating change is hard, even if you’ve got money and/or power.

Here’s the video from our salon:


More on the topic of civics in a distributed society from Ethan’s post about his keynote at Syracuse University’s Humanities annual symposium on Insurrectionist Civics in the Age of Mistrust (highly recommended, and most of the images on this blog comes from the associated slide deck).

How would YOU create change?

With this framing, this question was posited to the salon attendees. Erhardt facilitated an interactive workshop: “So let’s say you have 10 million dollars. What would you do, about climate change? Fund think tanks and organizations? Fund advocacy groups / passing laws? Fund research? Create tech to do things we can’t otherwise do?” The room divided into 4 groups, and then picked one of Lessig’s four means of interventions and brainstormed ideas.

What would you focus on doing, and how would you know if it was working?

Architecture/Code: Attach sensors to cars, trucks, and environments focused on transportation-based discharges of greenhouse gases. The emissions sensors could provide immediate feedback to drivers and city officials when emissions go to high and trigger sanctions.

Markets: Invest in a startup that offered green logistics/delivery services such as bicycles that would compete with truck-based last-mile services such as UPS and FedEx. Gain market share not just by comparative cost but also by being better for the environment.

Norms: Incorporate data about individuals’ carbon emission from how they live into their online social profiles so that their is an opportunity for social sanctions and desire for self-improvement is publicly viewable.

Law: Create policy that forced power suppliers to develop more resilient grids from renewable energy sources. The data would be monitored by the government for compliance.

We were also joined on Twitter:




To shift the world, even with massive funding and assumed power, is difficult. All of the interventions discussed at the salon were at a speculative pilot/demo level. To know you’re succeeding through an intervention is also difficult. There was a realization that those who have money and power are often not wildly successful at changing the world because of the difficulty of understanding how constructive change can be achieved. Perhaps a few “why don’t you just…” phrases were put to rest. At the same time, as individual citizens, we saw how much of a role we have to play in societal shifts — perhaps more effectively in our distributed and connected networks.

“The exercise of designing a method for evaluating your campaign’s success often forces you to rethink and get more specific about your original intervention idea. When you need to turn your target and goals into dependent and independent variables to study and then worry about the timeline for change — it really complicates your view of how to make change. And I would say each of the groups felt this.

There was also a clear bias amongst participants toward norms-based change even though they were addressing legal fixes, market forces, or technical architectures. We all want to think that people will know what behavior is the right behavior once they have enough information. The fact that such a process takes many years and many interventions and runs up against cognitive biases where information counter to your position can leave people stronger in their problematic ways, is what makes norms-based change so hard. The goal of making sure that everyone in the workshop had a chance to think about laws, markets, and code as well helps concretize the need for many different approaches: carrots and sticks in various guises needed for a movement to make its mark. And $10mil is not a lot of money to start with.” - Erhardt

Categories: Blog

Mentorship, Intellectual Freedom, and My First Lobster: My Summer PhD Internship at the Microsoft Research Social Media Collective

January 14, 2016 - 8:05pm

The hardest part of being a PhD intern at the Social Media Collective last summer happened on weekday mornings. Together with other researchers, I often joined our Writing Power Hour. For 90-120 minutes, we would try to stay quiet and make progress on our writing.

For a community of caring scholars who love sharing ideas and love to be with each other, staying quiet to write was no small challenge-- and not just because Tarleton Gillespie and Mary Gray seem full of energy and perpetually on the cusp of a mischievous joke. Everyone is just too curious to stay in their own heads for very long.

My summer at MSR New England has been an important part of my development as a researcher. Coming right after the exhausting, enriching ordeal of general/qualifying exams, it was exactly what I needed to step back, plunge my hands into a research project, and set the stage for my dissertation (also, I learned to sail!).

Are you a PhD candidate who's finished your qualifying/general exams? Apply for the Social Media Collective PhD internship by January 29. Go on; it's an amazing opportunity!

I came to social computing via a very unusual path, starting with postcolonial literature and computer science, continuing into startups and nonprofits, and then landing at the MIT Media Lab, where we tend to avoid disciplinary thinking. Over 4.5 years at MIT, I've come to see the deep importance of situating our discussions about design, data, and social change into a wider understanding of the issues and cultures our work engages with. And so the focus of my work has shifted to include theories and methods from sociology. My general exams focused on theories of civic life, quantitative methods for studying social movements, and theories of immaterial labor, as I tried to make sense of what it means for citizens to take on the work of understanding and responding to social problems online.

The Social Media Collective was the perfect place to bring those readings and theories into a concrete summer research project. But it was much more than that. My time with Nancy, Mary, Tarleton, Aleena, Stacy, Ifeoma, Andrea, Kevin, Sarah, Lana, and the rest of MSR New England was a valuable time to soak in a deeply generous and meaningful vision of what it means to be a scholar in the world.

What To Expect from an Internship at Microsoft Research New England
  • Mentorship and personal support from deeply thoughtful scholars at the top of their fields, who will be genuinely committed to your personal growth
  • Full intellectual freedom. Other corporate internships prioritize the contribution you make to the company, vetting your research before publication, while MSR strongly supports you to make a scholarly contribution first and foremost.
  • 12 weeks to design and carry out one full study. On one hand, the time passes very quickly. On the other hand, you will be able to dedicate all of your time to making that research excellent
  • Regular feedback and brainstorming on your research project
  • Companionship, conversation, and adventures with other thoughtful PhD candidates, including other interns from economics, mathematics, and computer science
  • Intimate conversations with scholars who cycle through. Over the summer, I enjoyed deeply helpful lunches with Fred Turner, Annette Markham, Henry Jenkins, and many others.
  • Opportunities to reflect on the arc of your career with people who have a wide view of the fields you work in
  • Access to other research communities in the Boston area. This past year, PhD interns gave talks at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society
  • Access, in some cases, to conversations with other parts of the company, if relevant to your research
  • Life in Boston/Camberville, which is wonderful
  • A 9-5 schedule, and consequently, a chance to regenerate partway through your PhD
  • Generous compensation, including funds to cover travel, accommodation, and more
  • An opportunity designed to be family friendly throughout, including company-wide social gatherings (I attempted to eat lobster for the first time, and it totally defeated me)
  • An inclusive and caring work environment that embodies mutual respect for people of all identities and beliefs
  • An amazing view

I will always remember how open and honest Nancy, Mary, Tarleton, and the others were about the state of their work and the challenges they faced. As someone who's not normally surrounded by qualitative researchers, I found it deeply helpful to listen as they talked through the daily struggles of their research. The researchers at SMC all share a special kind of experienced and confident humility about doing good work that offered me a helpful model for what it means to be a researcher of integrity. I already knew from hard experience the importance of being puzzled and getting stuck. But I learned much by watching Social Media Collective researchers articulate their challenges and work through them.

Among the many wonderful seminar conversations we shared, I especially loved our extended conversation with Henry Jenkins about how to harmonize the work of being a public intellectual while also doing high quality research that other scholars validate. 

My Summer Research at MSR: Online Harassment and the Work of Moderators Online

I came to MSR fresh from research on the challenges of reviewing and responding to harassment on Twitter, alongside a semester of wide reading in social movement theory and research on digital labor. Within the first week, I confirmed my decision to spend the summer looking at the work of moderators on reddit. Mary, Nancy, Tarleton, and Annette offered deeply helpful feedback and ideas on how to go about studying the work of moderators. A few weeks later, when moderators of 2,200 subreddits joined a social movement to halt operations and pressure the company to change how it treats moderators, they helped me decide what data to collect as the event unfolded.

I've written extensively about my process on the Social Media Collective blog, and the result can be seen in the article just accepted by CHI (preprint). In the paper, I investigate this key moment through a novel approach of "participatory hypothesis testing"-- building on my qualitative findings to bootstrap a participatory process of doing data science together with redditors. Here's how I define the method in my paper:

To describe factors in collective action against platform operators, this paper carries out mixed methods participatory hypothesis testing, an approach to action research online that combines methods from virtual ethnography and quantitative analysis. This study’s methods are drawn from the action research tradition, which began in the 1930s with studies by factory workers and university-based researchers in the early years of social psychology. Setting out to produce knowledge with and for workers rather than solely for factory operators, researchers and workers collaborated on studies to answer questions about leadership, cooperation, and management that were led by worker interests.

[....] data collection and question formation in this paper have taken three forms. Firstly, among qualitative methods, the researcher carried out content analysis of [reddit posts, articles, and interviews] .... Secondly, the researcher collected trace data from the reddit API... Finally, the researcher collaborated with reddit users, using a popular data approach to define hypotheses and interpret the results of logistic regression models predicting subreddits’ participation in the reddit blackout.

My summer at MSR was the perfect environment to develop the mixed methods approach that I needed to study the reddit blackout. While PhD interns are not allowed to bring their Microsoft work into their PhD, I have been able to build on the knowledge and relationships I developed last summer.

Research and Learning Beyond My Main Project

Anyone who knows me will know that it's tough for me to exclusively focus on one thing at a time. While I was at MSR, I also:

Amidst all of the support and encouragement I received, I was also very much on my own. PhD interns are given substantial intellectual freedom to pursue the questions they care about. In consequence, the onus is mostly on the intern to develop their research project, justify it to their mentors, and do the work. Tarleton and Mary asked me good, supportive, and often helpfully hard, critical questions, but my relationship with them was not the relationship of an RA to a PI-- instead it was the relationship of a junior colleague to senior ones.

I remember realizing my level of independence about 4 days into the internship -- that I was basically my own boss and that I needed to take full responsibility for my research rather than expect anyone to tell me how to go about my work. The PhD internship is *not* a collaborative apprenticeship like my 2013 internship at MSR Fuse Labs. As a PhD candidate, I was expected to pursue my own research agenda, even as I benefitted from guidance and feedback from Social Media Collective researchers.

So Apply Already!

Having observed the experiences of many Social Media Collective interns from my perch at MIT just a few blocks away from MSR New England, I can confidently say that pretty much every PhD intern experiences as much mentorship and opportunity in the same supportive environment as I did. So what are you waiting for. Apply already!

Categories: Blog

Introducing DataBasic.io

January 12, 2016 - 8:31am

We're pleased to announce the launch of DataBasic.io - a suite of simple web-based tools and hands-on activities that help you get started learning to work with data. The tools are geared towards journalists, non-profits, activist groups and students. Rather than just building data tools to make a pretty charts, we've designed these with learners in mind and we made them fun!

We’ve got three tools for you to start playing with – WTFcsv, WordCounter, and SameDiff. Pop on over to https://databasic.io and give them a try. Right now we’re supporting Spanish or English, and it is accessible to visually impaired via screen-readering software.

Don’t forget to watch the short intro videos on each homepage, and check out the activity guides.

DataBasic is the result of a collaboration with Catherine D'Ignazio at the Emerson Engagement Lab, and is supported by the Knight Foundation.

Categories: Blog

Javascript Developer for Live Streaming Site

December 23, 2015 - 2:30pm

MIT’s Center for Civic Media is developing a new platform to add contextual information to live streaming video and search across multiple live streaming services, allowing viewers to more deeply engage with live streams. The site is built on Meteor.js and we currently have an early beta version deployed at www.deepstream.tv. We are looking to contract with a Boston-area developer who wants to play an active role in continuing the development of features and refining the UI.

This position is part-time (between 15 and 25 hours a week) for 3-5 months. This period will include providing support for early users and integrating user feedback. It will also include an onboarding period for knowledge transfer from the current developer. We would like to hire by mid-February 2016. Ideally you would be open to the idea of joining the project on a longer-term basis if we are able to secure additional funding.

You will be working closely with researcher and designer of the platform. Ideally you would be Boston-based and able to work with us on-site at the Media Lab in Cambridge, but we’d make an exception for a candidate who is a great fit.


  • Strong knowledge of JavaScript
  • Experience developing with Meteor.js is a plus
  • Familiarity with MongoDB or other non-SQL databases is a plus
  • Detail-oriented and capable of delivering a polished product
  • Experience with production-level web-app architectures
  • Excitement for working on new technologies to support social activism
  • Contact: wgmangum@mit.edu

    Categories: Blog

    What would feminist data visualization look like?

    December 20, 2015 - 5:33am

    Seeing the whole world is a fantasy that Michel DeCerteau calls the "totalizing eye" and Haraway calls "the God Trick". This is the first image taken of the whole earth in 1967. From Wikipedia.


    In January, I'm headed to the Responsible Data Forum's event about Data Visualization. While there is a lot of hype about data visualization, and a lot of new tools for doing it (my colleague Rahul Bhargava and I have counted over 500!), fewer people are thinking critically about the politics and ethics of representation. This, combined with a chart-scared general public, means that data visualizations wield a tremendous amount of rhetorical power. Even when we rationally know that data visualizations do not represent "the whole world", we forget that fact and accept charts as facts because they are generalized, scientific and seem to present an expert, neutral point of view.


    What's the issue? Feminist standpoint theory would say that the issue is that all knowledge is socially situated and that the perspectives of oppressed groups including women, minorities and others are systematically excluded from "general" knowledge. Critical cartography would say that maps are sites of power and produce worlds that are intimately bound up with that power. As Denis Wood and John Krygier note, the choice of what to put on a map "... surfaces the problem of knowledge in an inescapable fashion as do symbolization, generalization and classification". Until we acknowledge and recognize that power of inclusion and exclusion, and develop some visual language for it, we must acknowledge data visualization as one more powerful and flawed tool of oppression.


    Can we say this more vividly? Donna Haraway, in her seminal essay on Situated Knowledges, does a brilliant tour-de-force to critique not just visual representation but the extreme and perverse privileging of the eyes over the body that has dominated Western thought. If you could, dear reader, read this quote aloud as it truly functions as a piece of performance art:


    The eyes have been used to signify a perverse capacity - honed to perfection in the history of science tied to militarism, capitalism, colonialism, and male supremacy - to distance the knowing subject from everybody and everything in the interests of unfettered power. The instruments of visualization in multinationalist, postmodernist culture have compounded these meanings of disembodiment.


    The visualizing technologies are without apparent limit. The eye of any ordinary primate like us can be endlessly enhanced by sonography systems, magnetic resonance imaging, artificial intelligence-linked graphic manipulation systems, scanning electron microscopes, computed tomography scanners, color-enhancement techniques, satellite surveillance systems, home and office video display terminals, cameras for every purpose from filming the mucous membrane lining the gut cavity of a marine worm living in the vent gases on a fault between continental plates to mapping a planetary hemisphere elsewhere in the solar system.


    Vision in this technological feast becomes unregulated gluttony; all seems not just mythically about the god trick of seeing everything from nowhere, but to have put the myth into ordinary practice. And like the god trick, this eye fucks the world to make techno-monsters.


    -- Donna Haraway in "Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective/Feminist Studies" (1988)


    The God Trick! Is this not the rhetorical premise and the seductive promise of most data visualization? To see from the perspective of no person, no body? Our appetite for such perspectives is fierce, "gluttonous", as Haraway characterizes it.


    And yet, there are ways to do more responsible representation. There are ways to "situate" data visualization and locate it in concrete bodies and geographies. Critical cartographers, counter-mapping artists, indigenous mappers and others have experimented for years with these methods and we can learn from them.


    Here are some beginning design thoughts about what feminist data visualization could do:


    1. Invent new ways to represent uncertainty, outsides, missing data, and flawed methods

    While visualizations - particularly popular, public ones - are great at presenting wholly contained worlds, they are not so good at visually representing their limitations. Where are the places that the visualization does not go and cannot go? Can we put those in? How do we represent the data that is missing? Andy Kirk has an incredible talk about the Design of Nothing that surveys the field in regards to how designers make decisions about representing uncertainty, including zeros, nulls and blanks. Can we push more designers to take these methods into consideration? Can we ask of our data that it point to its own outsides?


    Map to Not Indicate, 1967, by the art collective Art & Language. The map depicts only Iowa and Kentucky and then proceeds to list the many things that NOT represented on it. Part of the Tate Collection.


    Beyond simply missing data - how do we dig into data provenance as an entire subfield of visualization akin to the reporter's work of fact-checking and verification? Can we collect and represent the data that was never collected? Can we find the population that was excluded? Can we locate the faulty instrument that everyone assumed was working? Can we critically examine the methods of a study rather than accepting the JSON, CSV or API as is? This may seem like it's not the designer's job. Someone else prior to them in the pipeline will do that un-sexy investigative work of data anthropology. But if data visualizers don't take on this responsibility, who does?


    2. Invent new ways to reference the material economy behind the data.

    Akin to this question of data provenance, we also need to ask about the material economy behind the data. What are the conditions that make a data visualization possible? Who are the funders? Who collected the data? Whose labor happened behind the scenes and under what conditions?


    For example, the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (a civic science group with whom I am an organizer) has a technique of mapping where you hang a camera from a kite or balloon in order to collect aerial imagery. One side effect of this method that the community has embraced is that the camera also captures imagery of the people mapping. These are the bodies of the data collectors, so often absent from final representations.


    From a Public Lab research note by Eymund Diegal about mapping sewage flows in the Gowanus Canal. Note the people on boats doing the mapping and the balloon tether that links the camera and image back to their bodies.


    Data visualizations often cite data sources as fact on a legend but we could do more. What if we visually problematized the provenance of the data? The interests behind the data? The stakeholders in the data? A single CSV file or streaming feed often has no reference to any of these more human, material elements that are nevertheless essential to understanding the where, why and how of data.


    Perhaps one way to solve this would be to have, by default, or to collect oneself, much more robust metadata and to intentionally prioritize the visual display of that metadata. The goal of such visualizations would be to show not just "what the data says" but to show how the data connects to real bodies, systems and structures of power in the wider world.


    3. Make dissent possible

    While there are plenty of "interactive" data visualizations what we currently mean by this is limited to selecting some filters, sliding some sliders, and viewing how the picture shifts and changes from one stable image to another stable image as a result. These can be powerful methods for diving into a contained world that consists of stable images and stable facts. But as we know from Wikipedia editing wars and GoogleMap Controversies the world is not actually bracketed so conveniently and "facts" are not always what they appear to be.


    So one way to re-situate data visualization is to actually destabilize it by making dissent possible. How can we devise ways to talk back to the data? To question the facts? To present alternative views and realities? To contest and undermine even the basic tenets of the data's existence and collection? A visualization is often delivered from on high. An expert designer or team with specialized knowledge finds some data, does some wizardry and presents their artifact to the world with some highly prescribed ways to view it. Can we imagine an alternate way to include more voices in the conversation? Could we effect visualization collectively, inclusively, with dissent and contestation, at scale?


    What else?

    These are just three design suggestions that point towards a feminist ethics and politics of data visualization. What else? I'd love to hear what other aspects of data visualization we could re-think to make it more situated, more feminist and ultimately, more responsible. Post your thoughts here in the comments or @kanarinka on Twitter and let's start the conversation.



    Certeau, M. & Rendall, S. (1984). The practice of everyday life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Haraway, D.. (1988). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), 575–599. http://doi.org/10.2307/3178066

    Wood, D., & Krygier, J. (2009). Critical cartography. The International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. New York and London: Elsevier.

    Categories: Blog

    Exploring Citizen Sensing

    November 22, 2015 - 10:46am



    During my first official meeting with my supervisor Ethan Zuckerman, he hands me a SafeCast radiation sensor along with a Smart Citizen sensor.  The imperative is to explore the integration of sensors into a process of collecting data for civic action. With the price of sensors continuing to drop and the rise of citizen science initiatives, what new civic explorations can be enabled at the intersection of these trends? How can we visualize sensor data in a meaningful way? Over the last two months, I have worked with my colleagues on the Promise Tracker team to explore the integration of sensors into the Promise Tracker platform. After surveying a variety of sensors, we decided to to focus on a low cost sound pressure sensor as a starting point for a Citizen Sensing pilot.  The aim of the Citizen Sensing pilot was to 1.) explore one sensor type as basis for understanding the practical considerations of employing sensor data for civic action and 2.) to experiment with visualizing sensor data to inform future work in this space.


    We considered environmental sensors that can detect particulates, water quality, and sound pressure for the pilot. To support scalable participation in data gathering, our criteria  for choosing the initial sensor focused on price accessibility, measurement accuracy, and consumer availability. Given the low cost and high availability of microphones particularly on smartphones, we chose to focus on sound pressure.

    Since noise pollution stemming from traffic and construction is a common backdrop in urban centers that impacts many citizens, we set out to characterize the soundscape of the Boston area to help show both quiet spaces and areas of high levels of sound. To create soundscapes, we needed to capture sound readings along with the locations and times when readings were taken.



    Initial Testing


    We did a test run of raw recordings from the smartphone microphones of four volunteers. Each volunteer recorded at least one hour of audio from a personal phone placed in its typical location such as a pocket or bag. In reviewing the data, we quickly encountered privacy concerns as we heard snippets of conversations and bio movements. Would participants need to inform those around them that they had a recording device and obtain informed consent? If we recorded anything that would be a security threat, would there be an obligation to report the findings to any authorities?Another major issue was the occlusion of sound when the smartphone microphone was blocked or muzzled.

    As a result of these concerns, instead of capturing a continuous stream of audio, we decided to capture sound at short intermittent bursts  in order to record  the average amplitude of sound at a given time interval.  To have full control of the sound pressure data being recorded and minimize occlusions, we decided to forgo the smartphone microphone and build a sensor pack. The advantages of a sensor pack included:

    • the ability to distribute the same sound pressure sensor to all participants

    • dedicated battery to power the sensor

    • avoiding interference from typical phone use

    • a modular physical interface that could incorporate other sensors not typically available on a phone

    Still, having a sensor pack limited the initial level of participation in the pilot.

    Selecting Components


    At a minimum, each sensor pack needed a sound pressure sensor , a microcontroller, a power supply, and a means to transfer the recorded data. We could add a sim card to the pack and send the data to a server or we could send the data to the phone using bluetooth.  We also needed to capture the geolocation of the recorded sound, which could be obtained from a phone wirelessly connected to the sensor pack or could be added to the pack using a gps sensor. The timestamp needed for each recording could be obtained from either the microcontroller on the sensor pack or a connected phone.

    Macro Configuration

    Since adding gps($40 - $60) , sim card reader($20 -$40), sim card( $10), and data plan significantly increased the cost of the sensor pack, we decided to create a pack that could wirelessly connect with a smartphone which already had  gps along with wifi or a data plan to send sensor readings to a server.


    Our final sensor pack configuration contained:



    Integration With Promise Tracker Platform


    The Promise Tracker platform already provides a robust toolkit for collecting data and visualizing information.  To integrate sensor data, my colleague Emilie Reiser modified both the  Promise Tracker Survey Builder and the Promise Tracker Mobile application. The Builder now has an option to add a sensor as a data type along with questions that help provide context related to the sensor data if the reading is above a threshold set in the Builder.  To contextualize sound pressure, the survey asks for a sound source, an optional photo of the area the sound was recorded, and an optional audio recording.

    The mobile application now connects to a bluetooth sensor pack.  Once connected, the application continuously sends data to the Promise Tracker platform and notifies the user if a sensor reading crosses a specific threshold. The user can respond to this notification by answering a short survey to contextualize the reading. All of this information is aggregated on the Promise Tracker platform to allow for visualization and analysis.


    Exploring how to make sense of data was another important component of this pilot.  We soon found a tension between showing sound readings in aggregate to tell a collective story or showing readings from an individual to personify the data. What kinds of visualizations are meaningful to an individual? Do they differ from the types of visualizations that are meaningful to a community? We also questioned the extent to which time and geolocation should be intertwined. Using sound pressure, timestamp, geolocation, and contextual metadata I explored four core map visualizations and a basic chart of noise level overtime.


    Sound Path

    The sound path visualization enables a user to see sound levels during a specific time interval of interest over a given geography. The sound readings are visualized as circles with color and size corresponding to the noise level. Hovering over a circle enables you to read the specific noise level for a reading. By dragging the slider bar on the top right hand side of the map you can select the time interval to view. Below you will see the morning commute of one of our pilot participants.




    To provide context  for readings above a set threshold, annotations can be made visible on the map. These annotations contain an optional photo of the area the sound was recorded,  a sound source, and  an optional audio recording.  Annotations combined with sound paths or soundspaces help to tell a story. Below you can see that the loudest parts of a participant's commute were near busy intersections.



    Overtime, all of the sound readings from an individual form a soundscape based on the average noise levels which shows the typically loud and quiet locations for a citizen in a given geography. In the case of a commute, this information could be used to change a route to work to minimize exposure to noise pollution.

    When you have many citizens participating in sensing sound pressure you can form a soundscape of an entire city based on each individual’s exposure to sound throughout his or her day.


    Line Chart

    To analyze sound during different parts of a day without considering  geolocation, I also charted noise level over time.



    While these visualizations were initially developed to explore sound pressure, they can be used as is or modified to explore other types of sensor data.




    The citizen sensing pilot introduced us to the challenges of collecting sensor data and enabled us to explore several modes of visualizing soundscapes and context rich annotations.  The basic modular sensor pack and visualization tools developed during this pilot will be used in future work to help understand how to incorporate sensor data to help inform civic action.  Moving forward, we are investigating how to expand environmental sensing through this Citizen Sensing platform. In particular, we will work with the Safecast team  and our Media Lab colleagues in the Responsive Environments group to test the integration of soon to be released air quality sensors.  



    promise trackerCitizen SensingCivic mediadecision-makingenvironmentlocal communitiesmediamobile devicestechnology solutionsvisualization
    Categories: Blog

    A New Starting Point for Understanding Online Harassment

    November 20, 2015 - 11:05am

    If you're a platform designer or a researcher just starting to look into the issue of online harassment, where is a good place to start? To help you out, we have created an Online Harassment Resource Guide, which covers academic research on the topic.

    In the months after leading the creation of a peer reviewed report about harassment on Twitter, many designers, platform operators, and advocates have asked me if there's any academic research about online harassment and what it says. As a researcher, I've often felt the opposite problem. Online harassment and abuse have motivated so much research that it can be hard to wade through it all, especially because the research often appears in fields that rarely talk to each other. In many cases, designers and advocates propose great ideas that have also been tried elsewhere, approaches whose benefits and problems have already been discussed at length.

    The Online Harassment Resource Guide offers a starting point for people looking for an introductory overview to understanding and responding to online harassment. It covers scholarship in computer science, law, clinical psychology, history, journalism, communications, sociology, economics, machine learning, and more, incorporating suggestions from 20 scholars and advocates in over a dozen fields.

    Our guide focuses mostly on scholarly publications and reports by organizations, resources that are often less visible to people who aren't within universities. It is not the final word on issues of online harassment, since so many important perspectives are from people outside of academia and outside journal publications. However, since the stakes are so high and the problems are so persistent, we strongly believe in the value of the considered work that this research represents. Together, we have taken a pool of more than 1,200 academic articles (with some overlaps), and narrowed them down to the following scholarly conversations about online harassment:

    • Understanding Online Harassment
    • Trolls and Trolling Culture
    • Flagging and Reporting Systems
    • Volunteer Moderators
    • Automated Detection and Prediction of Social Behaviour Online
    • Speech and the Law
    • Voting and Distributed Moderation
    • Bystander Interventions
    • Secondary, Vicarious Trauma For People Who Help
    • Racism and Sexism Online
    • Online Misinformation

    We're hosting our resource on Wikimedia's servers so we can continue to grow and adapt the guide based on interest and suggestions from readers (here's the list of proposed sections). So please contact me directly if there are unanswered questions where you're looking for answers, or if you would like to help out. If you are a researcher and would like access to our Zotero group, contact me and I can share our wider list.

    The majority of work to create this guide was carried out in a day-long session at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society by our team of primary authors, who collected resources, prioritized them, and contributed in many cases to the current document: J. Nathan Matias, Susan Benesch, Patrick Earley, Tarleton Gillespie, Brian Keegan, Nathaniel Levy, and Erin Maher. Thanks everyone for this remarkable effort! I owe special thanks to Patrick Earley, Winter Mason, the HeartMob team, and Women, Action, and the Media, and the Coral Project, for convincing me that this would be widely helpful.

    We are also grateful to the following people, who contributed references to our initial pile: Whitney Erin Boesel, Willow Brugh, Danielle Citron, Katherine Cross, Maral Dadvar, David Eichert, Sarah Jeong, Ethan Katsh, Lisa Nakamura, Joseph Reagle, Carrie Rentschler, Rachel Simons, Bruce Schneier, and Cindy Southworth.

    online harassmentpeer supportonline abusetrollingflagginghate speechFirst Amendmentmisinformationracismsexismupvotingmoderationsecondary traumabystanderscyberbullyinggovernance
    Categories: Blog

    Data Transparency Lab: Industry Panel

    November 17, 2015 - 11:05am

    This is a liveblog from the Data Transparency Lab conference at the MIT Media Lab which is about transparency in user data collected from networked digital devices such as computers, mobile phones and other networked objects. Things that are needed for making a difference in user data online. Jose Luis Agundez (AT&T), the moderator, introduces the panel by saying that we need to connect research, policy, end users and data more clearly. We have an opportunity to shed light on the status of tools and data. He notes that we need a reality check. We can choose to not care and we can also choose to take specific steps in the right direction in terms of privacy of user data. What is the force of the users and the people? What is the potential way forward? He notes that transparency of government data is different from transparency of personal data and we should not conflate the two. This session is focused on data transparency in relation to personal, user data.

    (Live blogging by Catherine D'Ignazio and cross-posted from the Engagement Lab's blog)

    Scott Meyer (CEO, Ghostery)

    He polls the audience to see how many work in marketing & advertising. About 3 people. He says this is a problem in terms of having this conversation. Shows a terrifying graphic of the marketing tech landscape. Marketing technology is creatng a cluttered and expensive collection of point solutions. It's growing tremendously. It presents new problems. Ghostery is neutral - provide tools to have better digital experience. All the marketing tech makes the digital experience slow and sucky for end users.


    Just in the past 6 months and given the growth of mobile - consumers are now mad because they have a slow web experience. It's draining their batteries and their data plans. He has been in the marketing tech space for a long time. Why is this so complex? Emotion is greater than "Ration" [blogger's note: I think he means "reason"?]This applies to consumers and businesses. The NYTimes calculated how much of the cost comes from the ads on mobile websites.


    The industry knows this is a problem. Ghostery provides better transparency so businesses and users can make better decisions. You can install on your browser for free. Ghostery is a business and they make money by consumers opting into anonymous data - retail, banks, travel, etc. The company that owns the webpage doesn't understand the tracking ecosystem either. How do you make money? You appeal to marketers' greed and fear. The problems right now in this landscape are performance, governance , security and privacy. Customers leave because of all of these reasons right now.



    Shows example of Crate & Barrel. There are at least 50 third parties collecting data on their homepage. It's messy and complicated. Crate and Barrel probably doesn't know who they are. But it can start working against them, slowing the site down, and compromising user privacy. Ghostery tries to work with regulators to provide better privacy tools. He shows an example of their work with Reuters.


    Mobile - you can install their app called AdChoices. They have mapped companies at the device level and you can choose to have them not track you. Apps will increasingly allow you to opt out of certain companies' tracking both at app and device-level. He says this will happen soon at the network level as well.


    Alessandro de Zanche (Head of Audience and Advertising Systems, News UK)

    His company's main publications are The Times, The Sunday Times & the Sun. Today he is speaking as himself. He is here because he believes in transparency and privacy. Digital Advertising industry has a huge lack of credibility and trust. They have a problem with Ad Fraud (robots clicking things) and Ad Blocking (apps that block them). He calls this a User-Media Owner crisis. Now the advertiser is also intervening in this relationship. At some point Ad Tech has been growing and has somehow broken this relationship, necessitating the user of ad blockers.


    The perceived benefits of ad block are better user experience, faster page loading, improved privacy. How do you fix this? We need to re-establish the dialogue with the user. His paper is behind a paywall. The users believe in quality content and that's why they visit the paper's site. 12 years ago they were talking about best practices like having sound off by default and other conveniences for user. They have forgotten all of this. He says advertising needs to also rediscover their creativty. They have moved their energy from creativity in communicating with the user and towards quantifying. They also need to improve media owners' knowledge of this landscape. A huge problem with the growth of ad tech is that so many companies have sprung up. They come to us and promise to increase revenue by just placing their tags on your web pages. The knowledge of the publisher is not keeping up to speed with the industry and they are adding a lot of "rubbish" to their pages. Web without advertising would be a subscription based web. We need to work to improve knowledge in the industry to create user-centric solutions but also remember that ads are what allow for content to be "free".


    Mat Travizano (GranData)

    Company specializes in social analytics and social good.

    His company does cross-industry data monetization. What they do is take data from one industry and giving value to another industry. Social good is a powerful trojan horse to push companies to share data and to engage with end users to make them aware of how valuable their data and to loop them into the solution. They integrate data from, say telco and banks and social media in order to provide value to their customers.


    They say they have privacy by design. Their data is anonymized. They comply with all local regulations. They are doing a lot of things for social good within their for profit company but aspire to do more. How should they do this? Open source their tool? How to best leverage their technology for social good such as Bill & Melinda Gates? Or for research studies?


    Paolo Ciuccarelli (Density Design y Politecnico de Milano)

    Works on behalf of the end user and tries to understand the user experience.

    Paolo is a designer. He founded a research lab to make data more useful and accessible. Design is a human-centric discipline. So this means that the user's experience should be at the center of our thinking. My thinking about awareness is that it's both understanding AND empathy, not just rational knowledge. He calls this empathy through usability.

    He shows the tool RAW, a web-based tool for creating customized charts from spreadsheets with D3 at the base. People loved it immediately not just because of what it does but because of how it does what it does. It won a FastCompany award for Data Visualization in 2015. FloodWatch is another tool with this approach.

    What if we transform relationship with data into a game? In-person game about personal data that his studio designed. He also shows a design-approach to using metaphors to explain web trackers (above image). They also try to make personal data more public. They scraped car sharing data and then used aesthetics to convey the data.


    There is a dark side we have to fight with these experiences. This is the image of pivacy and anonymity. They explored the visual representation of anonymity and created an image and a project called Blackphone. Are there ways using design to nudge people with pleasurable and joyful things related to privacy and anonymity rather than scaring them and pissing them off?


    Jer Thorp (Office For Creative Research)

    Data artist and activist


    One of their central questions is "what is the human experience of data?". He uses the metaphor of air travel. You are touched inappropriately, you give up some control. You are part of a system that is extremely complex. At any given time there are more than 1 million people in the air. Shows "People in the Air" visualization. How can we make it easier for people to live within these data systems?


    They built a visualization called Behind the Banner about mobile data visualization. He teaches at ITP. One of his students, Julia Irwin, came up with idea of reverse engineering people's profiles from reading only their web ads. He loved this idea and collected his online ads for a month and then paid mechanical turk workers to write profiles. Everyone thought John lived alone, was in his thirties and single, and spent all his time playing video games.


    He shows their tool floodwatch. The idea here is about producing collective action. There are two problems with our conversation - it's all people like us. Not people who are most affected by these things. Discrimination affects the unempowered and underprivileged. How do we bring more people to the table? Building floodwatch they can try to empower these groups. They can donate their data to groups working on advertising malpractice. There is a dialogue around surveillance that is built around the idea that it works. It doesn't. How can we be more critical about how basically wrong these algorithmic techniques are?


    Question from audience: When you went to Crate & Barrel - are there whitelisted sites by default? Do you take money from those?


    Scott: No, we do not take money from those. There's another company that DOES do that. The whitelisting function is for any individual user. Privacy is subjective and situational.


    Question: About ads. Is it really a tradeoff between free content and ads?


    Alessandro: We need to go back to best practices in ads but also think about more user-centric perspective on ads. Advertisers are using third party data - good at aggregate level but not at individual level. There are studies that show that it's better to actually just show random ads than do targeting. 90% of industry will use third party data that tells you user's income to target them. They are profiling users for luxury travel, golf, yachts. Inferring things. If this is done with knowledge of user and respect to the user then good digital advertising. But we are talking about data as if there was one type of it. My passport info is different from whether I've read an article about homemade ice cream.


    Jose: What was the fear factor and scariness factor for users? Most people comfortable with seeing ads for TVs when shopping for TVs.


    Alessandro: Quality content and apps and websites cost money. Do we want to pay for subscription based Internet or make digital advertising better?


    Question: Mention that 22 million people subscribing to adblocker. There's a space here for someone like Amazon to contract out a browser that is 100% private for Prime customers. 100% privacy. No ads. Marriage made in heaven.


    Scott: There was a service that existed like that - called AOL in the 90s. The challenge is that closed systems almost always fail unless they can maintain a lock on the experience. The only successful one is Apple. Amazon super private browser is super smart. But how do you quantify who gets paid on publisher side?


    Question: A lot of misperceptions. 22 million number is not clear what fraction of people are actually using it. The sites that care - most sites know they are being blocked.

    Jer: The whole buzzword of user-centric design needs to move into the ad tech industry. Insurance, for example, is devising similar tactics as ad tech to determine whether to insure or not. These are much more critical decisions and this is terrifying.

    Question: Some discrimination is good. There is abuse of that. He is not concerned about how ads are tracking him but is concerned about how people are being discriminated against with data.


    Paolo: I'm an optimist in technological side. I think people here could solve some tech problems outlined here. But relationships with people is what needs to be developed. You are close to the data and the technology. Lay people do not necessarily understand graphs and spatialization of algorithms. We are far away from developing those relationships with the users. These are emotional relationships.


    Mat: The future challenges are being played out here. Data + Algorithms = Control and Control is Bad. We need a new way to protect our freedom. The social good use cases are a good case there.


    Categories: Blog

    9 Working Examples of Platform Cooperatives

    November 13, 2015 - 5:22pm

    Having spent a day here in New York City discussing the idea of platform cooperatives, the conversation shifted this evening with a showcase of nine actual cooperative organizations and technologies.

    (image by Jojo Karlin)

    Starting out the conversation was New York City Council Member Maria del Carmen Arroyo. She talked about first hearing about the idea of worker-owned businesses at a conference by the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, and then took the idea forward with the New York City Council. For 2016, the city approved of a $2.1 million Worker Cooperative Business Development Initiative. Arroyo talked about her hopes that they would be able to promote similar initiatives at a state and federal level.

    Next up, Janelle Orsi of the sustainable economies law center talks about the wider context in which co-ops matter. She shows us data on inequality in America, where 20% of people control 93% of the wealth, and where white households have 13 times the wealth of black people (in 2013), and where the gap has widened from 8x in 1983. It's time to change the rules of the game she says, rules that aren't necessarily government rules, but rather rules that are between people.

    What rules should we change? The first thing to change is that the people with the most money should get the most money out of something, even if they're not putting labor into something. The next rule to change is the idea that money equals power, where people who invest the most have the greatest power in the company, even though they're not part of the company. An alternative would be that money doesn't buy profits and power. That's the only way, she says that we can change this wider issue of inequality.

    In cooperatives, surplus goes back to people based on how much they work. Cooperatives typically give one person one vote, so money doesn't equate to power. "Old school" companies typically give workers as little as they can get away with, while worker owned companies give to employees from the surplus.

    According to Orsi, Good co-ops need clear, legal, financial, and governance structures to ensure shared control, shared wealth, and shared responsibility for the common good. She outlines a wider set of qualities that should go into bylaws for co-operatives, as well as the kinds of decisions about financial structures, and safeguards to prevent the co-op from being purchased by a wealthy buyer.

    How do we get from current platform economies to co-operatives? It's not so hard as typical political mobilization, Janelle says. The first step is to organize. The second step is to leap to the new platform. The third step is to delete the old platform, and then repeat. Janelle concludes by drawing an analogy from the problem of redlining; she argues that co-operatives offer an opportunity to "greenline" buying power and investing power to systematically funnel resources to projects that we want to succeed.

    Next up is a showcase of nine projects that are doing the work of creating cooperative platforms.

    Ali Alkhatib presents work from Microsoft FUSE Labs on designing worker-centric labor markets (slides). Ali is a PhD student in computer science at Stanford and has a background collaborating on the Dynamo platform for collective action by mechanical turkers.

    Ali argues that we all want to see better 'gig' labor markets. Unfortunately, laws protecting these workers have been slow to emerge. He argues that ideas can propagate faster than laws and regulations can. He set out to demonstrate that cooperative markets can compete with adversarial ones on their own terms. Over the summer, he spent weeks finding participants, did a lot of participant observation working dispatch, and participatory design, where he designed with partners, not clients. Ali talks about issues for workers to work through: how to design for constructive feedback, the social dilemma of work dispatch, managing customer expectations-- issues that came up in conversations with the national domestic workers alliance who they made a prototype with.

    What's next? Ali is focusing on the collective governance question. It's also important to create technologies that include the answers that come out of conversations with workers.

    Brianna Wettlaufer of Stocksy talks to us about putting power into the hands of workers, artists, and creators -- sharing profits and ownership among them. Stocksy is an artist owned co-op that sells stock photography. They built this company after starting and selling iStock to Getty.

    To reinvent the work, they had to reinvent what stock photography looked like, which meant reaching out to many people who hadn't sold photos before. By 2014, they had revenues of $3.7 million dollars, and over their history, they've paid out several million dollars in surplus to their artists.

    Brianna talks about key principles they've learned over the years as staff members in a co-op that has clients and artists as stakeholders: listen to their worker members, always be positive in their responses, always base their responses on evidence, and make sure that clients always feel heard.

    Felix Weth of Fairmondo, which tries to create a co-operative alternative to ebay and Amazon marketplace. In addition to functioning like an online market, the site also promotes a smaller number of fair trade and ethically sourced companies. He talks about the difficulties they have faced in building their community over the year-- he wouldn't call them a success quite yet. If you develop your own software, he says, you're taking on a big challenge, which is good because you can create principled software that meets your needs. But you also have the risk of failing to create something that won't effectively compete with other companies. They've spent a lot of money building this software, money invested by their co-op members. They have also done five crowdfunding campaigns. Each of them have been successful, but the have also been a big challenge, because Fairmondo needs double-digit millions of dollars to reach profitability, while they're getting a maximum investment of 700,000 Euro. In his impression, large multinational corporations are better at cooperating with other firms than co-ops are less capable of cooperating with each other.

    Felix concludes by talking to us about the idea of "co-ops 2.0," a co-operative that can't be corrupted, respects all stakeholders, is democratically accountable, and rewards people with points for investing time and work. He encourages us to join the session tomorrow to learn more.

    Next, Melina Diaconis, a Cornell Tech MBA student, of Coopify talks about a project they built on behalf of Robin Hood. This is a device agnostic, mobile-first platform that is designed to allow them to scale and engage digitally. She talks about choices they made that allow workers to receive funds directly in cash. The system also allows people to continuously book with the same person. The system also supports a referral system. Finally, the system offers multilingual support.

    Robert Benjamin of Member’s Media, a co-operatively owned media platform, argues that "independently-produced narratives has value in society because it has a chance to produce empathy." Yet while the power to produce media is becoming more widespread and the power to reach people is more possible than ever before. Platforms like YouTube and other content systems are "free-ish." They incentivize media that generates impressions, regardless of the personal or societal impact something might have. He argues that advertising is still shaping what content is made-- just as in television. They've created a co-operative film fund that allows them to operate every part of the film-making process in a co-operative manner, as a "multi-stakeholder limited cooperative association" with investors, builders, creators, collaborators, supporters, and mentors.

    Francis Jervis, an NYU PhD student, talks about TimesFree, which he created in Helen Nissenbaum's class, a blockchain based labor system based on cryptocurrency. People mostly want to trade with a small circle of people who they really trust, Francis says. The most effective form of time sharing structures aren't time banking; they're things much closer to home. Babysitting co-ops, he argues, are a great model for the peer economy. They use form of scrip, a token system that allows people to share between themselves without using money. In these, a single token is worth 15 minutes of babysitting. Others just have a central log or spreadsheet, with a member acting as a secretary. Families who use these can save thousands of dollars every year, even if they just use it a few hours a week.

    Babysitting can also fail for specific reasons. There was a babysitting co-op in DC that no one could use even though they had tokens. Either some people had so many tokens that they didn't have incentive to contribute, or people had so few that didn't claim them. In Arun Sundararajan's NYU class on the sharing economy, Francis simulated different ways of setting up co-ops to understand how to prevent them from failing in this way. By introducing a matching algorithm, Francis was increase the probability that a given family would get what they needed.

    Based on these simulations, the Timesfree system is a common ledger that tracks tokens and matches people to avoid the systems that causes time-share co-ops to fail. The system launched on the Apple app store in August, and there are several groups using in different parts of the US. Francis talks about the idea of applying TimesFree to many other parts of the economy.

    Noemi Giszpenc tells us about Data Commons Cooperative, which brings together organizations building the cooperative and solidarity economy. The organizations believe in sharing information with each other: membership lists, measurements, opportunities - to give greater strength and resilience to all participating. The co-op, which started in 2012, now has over 30 member organizations. She talks about a collaborative mapping system that's being used to map out co-ops in a region, as well as a system for comparing lists to one another. Their goal is to work together across co-ops to gather, share, maintain, display, and deploy data to serve their communities.

    Peter Harris tells us about Resonate, a cooperative streaming music system. He tells us that revenue from streaming music services have passed CD sales, even though artists aren't getting the money. He talks about the business structure of Apple, Spotify, and YouTube, where the deals between labels and platforms are not always transparent to artists, who have limited access to audience data. In Resonate, users "stream it until you own it." The first time you play a song, it costs 0.002 cents, the second time it costs you 0.004 cents, and by the 4th or 5th play, you've started to identify with this music, become a fan of it, and build a bond with it. Eventually, as you play it more and more, you come to own it. Peter talks about upcoming challenges:

    Joshua Danielson tells us about Loconomics, a group (in beta) that uses tech, shared ownership, and community to local economies, through a system that allows you to search for freelancing professionals. This system is worker owned, there are no markups, and no bidding. The system handles payments, does background checks (for work with kids, elderly, or cases of licensed professionals), and has a way to note your favorite professionals. He shows us a profile page that lists the person's experience and bio, as well as the services they're able to provide.

    Service professionals get the tools they need to run their own business, a marketplace for finding work, and ownership of the marketplace. They're also building accounting and performance tracking capabilities to help service professionals set and meet goals. Membership in Loconomics costs a $29.95 a month fee (or $300 per year). They're now testing the app in the SF Bay Area in January and February, and will start to allow users from other markets starting in March.

    Categories: Blog

    9 Working Examples of Platform Cooperatives

    November 13, 2015 - 5:22pm
    Categories: Blog

    9 Working Examples of Platform Cooperatives

    November 13, 2015 - 5:21pm
    Categories: Blog

    9 Working Examples of Platform Cooperatives

    November 13, 2015 - 5:21pm
    Categories: Blog

    Platform Cooperativism: Co-Op Development: Incubators and Decelarators

    November 13, 2015 - 3:21pm

    This discussion aimed to investigate the factors that help and discourage cooperative success. Each of the panellists has direct experience in cooperative groups and the time is divided so each has separate time to explain their own experiences. This post is a live-blog of the session, which is a part of the 2015 Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School, NYC.

    Panelists: Omar Freilla, Emma Yorra, John Duda, Esteban Kelly

    Moderator: David Morgan


    Esteban Kelly: Distinguishing Among the Various Cooperative Forms and Understanding How to Choose the Best One for Your Endeavor

    [Notes to follow]
    US Federation of Worker Coops

    Cooperative forms...

    Principles of Cooperativism: Does it operate for member and community benefit?

    Do the people who do the work own it and control it?




    Omar Freilla: The Co-op Academy

    ‘Making 1000 worker co-ops bloom: Creating the Co-Op Academy in the Bronx’ by Green Worker Cooperatives

    Freilla introduces himself as the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives, a group founded to help bolster green business. The initial approach for the group was to start one co-op at a time, but they found that this was unsustainable. With inexperienced start-up management, sales lagged and the economy tanked causing them to rethink the co-op infrastructure.


    The next move for the group was to focus on economies of scale and spread the risk. Through the partnership, crowdfunding and volunteer assets the team had, the group wanted to bring together new ideas. Drawing a team together, they built the Co-Op Academy, bootcamp style, bringing people together to follow through a cross-section of ideas simultaneously.


    The groups have grown through the formation of a brand as a collective. The pull of individuals’ embedded within the community they are interpreting helps each co-op group take off with a distinct entrenchment within the needs it is representing.


    The big change in the approach of the academy drew from the tech start-up world, as the traditional business planning approach was not working. So Co-Op Academy ‘2.0’ is now bilingual (Spanish and English) and focuses on the development of the business model by taking into account flexibility and responsiveness to user needs.


    Co-Op Academy ‘3.0’, coming this fall, borrows this quick prototyping and testing idea. Seven different teams in the academy will be launching projects from schools to urban farming. Co-Op Academy help facilitate the cross-fertilisation of ideas between members, as well as coordinating partnerships with other groups from graphic designers to local council groups.


    It is important to Freilla that the cooperatives function as viable business models, as he believes this is the only way they can transform the economy.  


    Q&A: How do you fire someone?

    This can be replaced by a solid structure of accountability. Worker-owned cooperatives have a sense of investment that requires etiquette, and Freilla has been impressed by people’s drive to self-rely on their cooperative work.

    Kelly wants to add that accountability is two ways, and the idea of firing is a concept from the traditional worker model. The question should instead be ‘how can the cooperative set everyone up for success, including training and support?’ Accountability in this sense can be nurturing, investing, and training: something inherently positive. These problems can be insulated and carefully negotiated in the by-laws of the cooperative.


    Q&A: How do you talk about the economic benefits of investing time in co-ops?

    Shares and membership are used very loosely, and they often don’t involve any say in the running of the group or corporation in question. Cooperative work means you get a share in the profits and a share of say in the business based on a one member one vote principle.




    Emma Yorra: Scaling Cooperatives Through Platforms?

    Yorra introduces herself as a member for the Centre for Family Life, a 37year old social service agency based in Sunset Park which is a traditionally low-income immigrant neighbourhood. The Cooperative Development Program emerged in 2006 through the adult employment program, as an attempt to challenge the illegal ‘gig’ economy to provide dignified, living-wage work in the case of wage-exploitation and dangerous jobs.


    Currently working with 9 cooperatives and 1 cooperative network, the demographic is primarily Latino women with education levels of high-school or less. From house-cleaning to pet care, the cooperatives aim to disrupt the economic system that pushes those most marginalised and with the highest barriers out of the economy.


    Marketing and reach remains a problem for the groups Yorra seeks to incubate, especially in light of the increasing need to compete with venture capitalist backed firms who are moving into the new service spaces. For Yorra, cross-pollination could be a great place to achieve greater economies of scale and reach by teaming with similar cooperative services across New York City.


    The Robin Hood Foundation approached the group this year to create a platform with students from Cornell in order to rival capitalist services. The working name is ‘Coopify’ and initially it will address just residential cleaning, allowing users to book and pay online. For the cooperative group Si Se Peude, most customers come from community review services like Yelp. As such it is important for Yorra to attempt to replicate that across the platform, with wireframes signalling a referral function on the client facing side, as well as an in built translation service between Spanish and English for both the client and worker facing sides.


    Issues that have arisen for the team have included the lack of tech background among the staff who mainly come from social services. The team are also worried they lack the foresight to be able to build something with long-term sustainability, particularly when looking at the owner structure of the platform. Yorra finishes by mentioning that they are currently hiring a Coop Platform Developer as part of the initial feasibility study, which will last until June 2016.  Anyone with ideas should send them to eyorra@cflsp.org


    Q&A: It sounds like a top-down rather than bottom-up process -does this harm cooperative values?

    Role as incubator, so they run the cooperatives and we just provide them specialised consultation.


    Q&A: What are the major things preventing cross-pollination?

    Accountability and standard reassurance between groups; but potential to share office space and administrative services and so on. Dialogues are beginning to happen, and this project is a good excuse to bring the groups together.


    Q&A: Half members/Full members, how do the groups decide on voting power between different working structures?

    Candidacy or full membership which equals one vote. They have a trial period where the standard of work is compared and assessed, and then to confirm membership they must pay fees and attend meetings and so on.



    John Duda: Anchoring Cooperativism

    Duda introduces himself as the Communications Director at the Democracy Collaborative.


    He begins with a critical look at cooperative history. The wave we’re in represents the ‘disillusionment with capitalism, post baby boom’ trend, but the wave before was born from same generation of the early internet.

    Both leant on the basic impetus of engagement with solutions through atomised consumer decisions, whether it’s corporate Compuserve or decentralised food co-ops of the 1960’s counterculture. The conversations about how to challenge ownership and wealth distribution have been going on for generations.


    Duda’s group, the Democracy Collaborative worked with the Cleveland Initative ‘Community Wealth’ to create 3 Evergreen Cooperatives, where a non-profit corperation would assist profit-based worker owned cooperatives. This helped tackle issues of mass incarceration in the area.


    Looking at the successes and failures of others, the Democracy Collaborative found key principles to empowering individuals within cooperatives were a focus on organising and a focus on pedagogy. Emphasis was on investing in people.


    Duda turns to the Cooperative Home Care Associates in the Bronx as the largest co-op in the US, with over 2000members. However, unlike the common striving for technological based solutions, CHCA moved digitally backwards and removed direct debits so members had to come in to pick up their pay cheques. This created a need to engage and learn with the space, and fostered a sense of community. Underscoring this point is the idea that there are other solutions beyond the digital agenda that can be utilised for cooperative movements.


    Duda poses that the question now becomes how do we scale up these cooperative groups and movements up. The turn to cooperatives, in small and experimental ways, show communities attempting to turn to locally routed jobs that redistribute wealth and ownership.


    Q&A: The Next Economy Project -where are the connections between the micro (local) and macro (national)?

    Important to link them both infrastructurally for effective change


    Q&A: How does the emphasis on the importance of pedagogy effect those who have traditionally been disempowered?

    Relating the concepts of cooperativism to people’s lives so they can see themselves in the system. Using creativity to move away from class-based language and into visual cues and games to engage people.


    Platform Cooperativismcooperativismsuccessbusiness modelsplatforms
    Categories: Blog

    Building New Supports for the New Workforce: The Role of Solidarity and New Labor Institutions

    November 13, 2015 - 2:33pm

    What is happening to the economic activity generated by all the great projects we are a part of?

    As a part of the 2015 Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School, NYC, this session brought together different perspectives -including those with experience founding new labour organisations- to discuss how the role of labour is changing and which innovations can best ensure it’s supported.

    Panel: Yochai Benkler, Michelle Miller, Daniel R. Schlademan, Kristy Milland
    Faciliated by: Sara Horowitz

    Daniel Schlademan:

    Schlademan introduces himself as the co-director of OurWalmart. With 2.2 million employees, Walmart is the US’s largest private sector employer, only coming second to the US Department of Defence in global terms - which, Schlademan says, gives us an idea of the worker power behind it.

    The movement began in 2010, with the theory that OurWalmart would not wait for the government or the company to say it was okay for the workers to join an organisation. The internet became an essential part of mobilisation, with 400,000 workers on Facebook listing Walmart as their employer, the internet becomes a place to share strategies and collectively organise power.

    Social media is now an intrinsic part of social activism and organising. Schlademan attributes the increasingly negative responses to Walmart shown by millennials to the coverage social media provided the OurWalmart movement.


    Michelle Miller:

    Miller introduces herself as the co-founder of Coworker.org, born from the traditional labour movement and the drive to find ways for workers to organise themselves. Issues raised by workers would often be invisible to management and worker advocacy staff, but would be quickly rallied round by co-workers. Miller found that often these workers would take on leadership roles in petitioning and, amazingly, sometimes they won.

    As such Miller wanted to create a platform that would build and shift power within major companies. Over the past few years Coworkers.org has worked with American Airline workers, Uber drivers and Starbucks baristas - the Starbucks story will frame Miller’s points about collaboration…

    Kristie Williams, a barista, wrote a campaign about Starbucks anti-tattoo policy. Once posted online it quickly took off with other baristas. Coworker.org asked if they wanted help and got involved. Williams developed an Instagram account for members to tell the story of their tattoos, and instinctively used the corporate hashtag. The ensuing flood of pictures caught the attention of the mainstream press. Yet when Miller approached Williams for press comments, Williams said she did not want to speak to the press. Here Miller realised that these campaigns need organisation beyond an individual, and so 30 baristas were identified to become the media committee for the campaign. The petition resolved with Starbucks announcing an overturn of the policy, 2months to the day from Christie’s petition. Miller feels that the experience of empowerment through collective organising is useful to the individuals involved, despite Starbucks denying the input of the petition - the network has now grown to span several issues ran by baristas across the world.

    As such the importance of Coworker.org is experience of empowered through collective advocacy, and it provides a model for how technology platforms can help collectives build power within companies.


    Yochai Benkler:
    Benkler begins by wanting to frame the day, and argues that what has arisen from the conversations is the need to recognise the vitality of a variety of strategies to negotiate the long-term alongside, and as part of, other major interventions.

    Schlademan’s Walmart example shows the need for the traditional method of labour organising -as does Coworker.org, although across a broader spectrum. These strategies are, for Benkler, the empowerment of positions routed in the traditional worker/employee power structure, including leverage and bargaining power, rather than models of cooperativism per say. Unionism becomes a difficult task in these highly disorganised places of labour, and as such a turn to cooperativism is an attempt to find new strategies of disruption.

    Here Benkler turns to the net as a platform that allows the creation of spaces outside the traditional structures of power. Both freelancers and contingent workers (the definition dependant on class divides) rely on mutual assurance through the provisioning of goods and the generation of political capabilities. How do we leverage the kinds of political organisation that we have seen successfully change the structure of labour organisation?


    Sara Horowitz: Introduces the Freelancers Union and highlights the new campaign in NYC and asks people to get in touch if they want to get involved. Tries to build the standards, resources and political weight of freelance workers by creating systems of mutualism which support their needs and diversity.


    Q&A: Have we seen a shift in this thinking with new technology platforms?

    Schlademan: Having worked in the labour movement for 24years, the institution of labour is struggling dramatically, including how technology is undermining and changing the way it functions. Those who want to uphold the status-quo are scared of the collective power that social media embodies. But social media isn’t taking over traditional organising - it’s adding to it. Labour organisers still need to uphold traditional strategies, but it opens up the scale to new depths.

    Miller: For the past 40years, institutional roles which technology has over-ridden: i) communicators ii) convenors iii)holders of knowledge, expertise and experience
    the internet now allows workers to negate those institutional needs - where before institutions saw their role as mediators that is now not the case -however, this can open up opportunities to new functioning -instead of holders of knowledge, they can become expert navigators of that knowledge, access to deep expertise -spaces of trade unions halls as open and usable co-working spaces -facilitating mutual aid, applying that existing functionality to forming networks


    Benkler: We should recognise cooperativism is a left-wing mirror or right-wing libertarianism of non-regulation: both reflecting disillusionment with public institutions and the rise of neoliberalism, NSA surveillance, failure of capitalism etc. One of the problems of the left in the US is a fear of the state as its susceptibility to being ‘captured’ - we need to capture the power within the state with the understanding that it’s fallible, but still engaging it.


    Horowitz: Exciting that we’re starting to have a more fine-grained discussion about the role of the state. If people want to see these organisations, individuals need to help build them.


    Kristy Milland: Amazon Turckers

    The Turker movement began on Dynamo.org, a site open to all workers, with the letter campaign ‘Dear Jeff Bezos’, the  CEO of Amazon. The amount of responses caught mainstream media attention, which in turn pressured Amazon into some changes however, these were not attributed to the campaign. For example, one of the letters was from an Indian worker regarding the fact their pay-cheques had never arrived. Amazon introduced direct debit, but framed it as their own choice. The campaign still claim it as their own victory however, and now utilise the strategy of positive framing, presenting plans of improvement that make Amazon look good. Milland now works with old and new form (web 2.0) unions. Despite the Uber legal route, she believes that for an invisible and non-interactive work force like the Turkers, there are problems to organisation that override that strategy.


    Platform CooperativismNew Schoolcooperativismlabourlabour organising
    Categories: Blog

    Organizing Labor in Platform Economies: Platform Cooperativism Conference

    November 13, 2015 - 2:25pm

    What forms of networked solidarity are emerging in an era of online platforms, and how might we organize labor in platform economies?

    I'm here at the two-day Platform Cooperativism conference at the New School in New York city. I'll be facilitating a workshop on data science in cooperative economies with Tara Adiseshan at 2pm on Sat and will be speaking on monitoring abuses of power at 4pm on Sat. In the meantime, I'm liveblogging as many sessions as I can.

    Facilitated by Sara Horowitz: Founder and Exec Director of Freelancers Union

    Sara starts out by talking about the idea of New Mutualism that she uses at Freelancers Union. Whether or not, we're bound to have a shrinking government in the future. Companies see this shrinking circle as a market opportunity. Sara asks us to think about the things we need to be doing in the local economy that takes on the social imperatives of the people within it -- what's the strategy for housing, education, food? Because we're in an environment that can't be funded by government or foundations in the long-term, it's going to have to have some kind of revenue model (as do unions, cooperatives, etc). How do we build these kinds of ecosystems and organizations so they can be independent and local all over the place. Then, how can we thread them together? Once we do so, we might have a political constituency, something that we can leverage to influence government to promote that kind of society. Freelancers Union is trying to be one organization within that wider movement.

    When talking to "sharing economy" companies, remember that we're in an era of enormous bullshit, says Sara. If people are talking to you out of their marketing budget. If they're talking to you from the profit side, take it more seriously.

    Daniel R. Schlademan: Co-director of OUR Walmart

    How do you take on a corporation the size of Walmart? There are only two things on earth bigger than Walmart. The first is the US DOD. The second is the Chinese Liberation Army. Walmart has 1.2 million employees in the US. Those workers are broken into over 4,000 stores, with several hundred workers who are separated across multiple shifts. How do those workers build power in order to affect Walmart?

    The campaign with Walmart started in 2010 with workers who wanted to improve their experience of workers. OUR Walmart decided not to wait for the government or the employer to say that it was okay to start an organization within the company. If workers wanted to join together, then they would do that.

    The Internet is one of the best ways to find and organize Walmart employees-- there are 400,000 people who list Walmart as their employer on Facebook. Using that collective power, workers successfully pressured the company to give half a million workers a raise. For decades Walmart relied on the assumption that they could pay people less than anyone else. But that's not true anymore. Right now, pregnant women across the country have started a movement called "Respect the bump" to change policies around how much pregnant women are expected to lift while pregnant. They connected on Facebook, they created a plan to address a company-wide policy increase, and they organized to create that change. Until recently, companies believed that their brand was impervious, but workers are learning that they have the power to coordinate across the country.

    In past years as an organizer, Daniel talks about ways that organizing has changed from trying to reach all the people in a single plant to focusing on finding the militant few across a company who can shift a wider corporation.

    Michelle MillerCoworker.org

    Michelle Miller and her co-founders at Coworker.org were looking for ways to help people who wanted to organize to build power in their workplaces, even if they didn't go so far as starting a union. People were organizing on Reddit or creating Change.org threads, asserting ideas for changing their workplaces. These ideas might be invisible to traditional labor organizers and create one-time campaigns that their coworkers cared about. But even after they won campaigns, they didn't have the infrastructure to keep those networks going for longer term systemic change. With Coworker.org, they offer infrastructure and expertise to support people to create "global, decentralized networks" to build and shift power within major companies.

    Over 3 years, they've supported efforts by American Airlines employees, Starbucks baristas, Wells Fargo tellers, and many others to build power in their company. Michelle tells us the story about Kristy, a Starbucks employee who was had to put bandage over her tattoo due to a company policy against visibles tattoos. After Kristy created her campaign on Coworkers.org, thousands of other baristas joined. So they called her up and asked, "how can we help you" rather than telling them what to do. Kristy had noticed that people were telling their stories and photographing their tattoos. Workers used a hashtag to find each other and share their tats. When it came time to talk to the media, Coworkers.org helped the employees form a committee of 20 people to talk to the media. Within just a few months, 15,000 baristas from 17 countries had joined the campaign, and the company responded to reconsider its tattoo policies and raise wages.

    What matters is what happened after this campaign. Michelle argues that participation in things like coworkers.org offers experiential learning in advocacy. Coworkers.org continued to engage with the baristas, seeing the network grow to around 24,000 baristas who subscribe to their barista newsletter and occasionally develop new campaigns

    Yochai Benkler: Peer Mutualism And The Future Of Capitalism

    Yochai starts out by recapping his talk from this morning. In order to deal with the problem of rising inequality, we're going to need a diversity of strategies. Cooperatives are one action, but there are other complementary strategies that are important. Walmart is an example of a company that is able to protect itself from worker action from geographic and time differences. The previous speakers have talked about ways to leverage network technologies to achieve some of the things that unions have typically done.

    But Walmart isn't a sharing economy platform, and it's very different from the Freelancer's Union, which has organized people who don't have a single shared employer. Freelancer's Union focuses on sharing risk, providing training, and learning that could help in terms of bargaining power, but mostly in terms of setting standards for a model in which people can work. Yochai gestures to Kristy Milland, saying that she should be on stage too, talking about her letter to Jeff Bezos. When there's no membership organization with fees to fund services, no picket line, no way for consumers to know who's a scab, no photo-op, it's hard to effectively organize. Yochai asis: as larger number of people are freelancers and contingent workers, how can we collectively organize to provision goods and services, while generating political capabilities.

    Unions were partly successful because they were able to develop war chests to fight corrupt companies. In sharing economies, those war chests don't yet exist. Yochai concludes by asking us how we can develop those things.

    Questions & Discussion

    Daniel responds to a question about whether technology is undermining traditional unions. Daniel responds that this power is exciting because it offers so much potential, but it's also scary to more experienced union organizers who are worried about losing control. For people who aren't invested in maintaining the status quo, he says, social media is a powerful area of potential. Social media is not taking over traditional organizing or changing the foundation of good organizing, he says. Instead, it's adding to it. You still need to get people together and have face-to-face conversations. But the Internet is supporting the scale and speed at which people who agree and want to work together can find each other.

    Michelle points out that traditional organizers have tended to connect people, share information, and do research. Due to that central role, organizers came to think that they should do the mobilizing. That's less the case now, as people find each other and organize for change. Labor institutions can now (a) think of themselves less as holders of knowledge and more as expert navigators of that knowledge. Secondly, (b) trade unions have union halls that they could open up to communities. They have amazing bars and dance halls that could be more open spaces that people could use, especially as third space is disappearing -- there are very few places you could go to where you don't have to pay a corporation to be there. The third opportunity is to facilitate mutual aid. Institutions already have infrastructure to take in and redistribute resources. She wants to figure out how to provide mutual aid opportunities to people functioning inside their networks -- and there are many older institutions with that expertise that she would like to collaborate with.

    Yochai points out that cooperativism is a left/liberal mirror of right-wing libertarianism. To some sense, this distrust in institutions is merited after the mistakes of recent governments. Yochai says there's a classic story of a bank robber who robbed banks because that's where the money is. Why do we need the state, he asks? That's where the power is. One of the problems we have as progressives -- as the left-- is a real skepticism about the state, the degree to which is susceptible to capture, and the degree to which it is open to democracy. If we put all of our efforts into workarounds around the state. Right now in Barcelona, there's an effort to capture the power and build democratic efforts within power. Yochai urges us to keep engaging with the state to change its institutions, not only to build our own mutualistic, anarchistic, or distributive models -- but also as a core part of our agenda.

    Sara asks the question: what would we want the state to do? Her idea is one she attributes to FDR-- laws that he created that supported unions to develop a distributed form of power. She argues that elected officials often respond by saying, "we'll do that," when what Sara prefers them to say is "help the public do that for themselves."

    Kristy Milland
    Kristy Milland is a Turker, a worker on Mechanical Turk. She also runs Turker Nation, a community of workers. The company doesn't let them talk to each other, and that's what TurkerNation supports. In the last few years, Turkers have realized that they're workers, that it's not just pocket money. She describes work by Niloufar Salehi, Lily Irani, Michael Bernstein, and others to find ways to connect and organize workers for change. They created WeAreDynamo.org, an anonymous platform where any worker can go and say, "I'm upset about X. Who's in?" One of their campaigns was a letter campaign called "Dear Jeff Bezos," which organized large numbers of turkers to write public letters to the company that received media attention. Although the company claims that it wasn't attributed to worker activism, the company did change how Indian workers were paid. On Mechanical Turk, with a workforce that is invisible, that is not quantitative numbered, they're continuing to find new ways to organize. (I've written about this story for The Atlantic here)

    How are Organizations Funded?
    Coworker.org is mostly funded by foundations and fellowships. They have one partnership with a trade union in Australia who they're training in their model. They have a long-term plan to transform their networks into some kind of dues generation or facilitated mutual aid that provides revenue. Sara notes that more groups are starting to realize that you have to generate your own revenue -- something she says we'll see more.

    Are Employee Stock Ownership a Productive Direction for Cooperative Economies?

    In response to a question on employee stock ownership, Yochai refers to a history of this process by referring to the moment in 1994 that employees bought a majority stake in United. Yochai argues that the important thing to recognize is that ownership doesn't necessarily translate into democratic control. The critical thing about co-operatives as opposed to co-ownership is a commitment to participation in self-governance, and that's not always what unions are advocating for when they do employer buy-outs.

    Michelle urges us to look beyond employers to think about holders of capital and power in these distributed platforms and power holders. As technologies reshape the nature of work, it's important to be aware that people will move across a number of ways of organizing work across their lifetimes, so we need to center our work on people rather than just employers.

    Categories: Blog

    Platform Cooperativism: Conditions of Possibility

    November 13, 2015 - 10:58am

    Conditions of Possibility

    Today, I’m here at the New School in New York City with Nathan Matias for the Platform Cooperativism conference, which is bringing together a remarkable range of speakers on the theme of creating online platforms that are owned and operated by their users and workers. These two days feature speakers from a wide range of academic disciplines alongside people sharing their experiences of running co-ops and advocating for fair work in platform economies.

    Each speaker begins with 20minutes of individual presentation before the floor opened up to questions and discussion.

    Panel: Saskia Sassen; Christoph Spher; Mayo Fuster Morell; Dmytri Kleiner
    Facilitated by: McKenzie Wark



    Sassen begins by mentioning that growing up in Latin America means that she has a different translation into the subject. She is here today to discuss a project that deals with the question of digital enablement for low wage workers in the workplace and in their neighbourhoods - where the neighbourhoods are an extension of low-wage work, and problems translate between work and home, and vice versa. The project focuses on enabling the neighbourhoods to become a social back-up system for low-wage workers.

    Sassen begins by identifying key user traits of the low-wage workers. She characterises them as accessing the internet typically through Android and through their phones. She also highlights that Android apps are largely aimed at a ‘professional’ market, and are currently of little use to the low-wage workers.

    From here the question arises as to what kind of digital apps would actually enable low-wage workers and mobilise neighbourhoods. Sassen avoids use of the word community in order to avoid romanticisation of the various diversities and differences these low-wage worker neighbourhoods experience. She is interested in how to mobilise the diversity of subjects around shared concerns, and the intervention then becomes how this can lead to significant mobilisations.

    Digitisation becomes a key variable in Sassen’s work. She argues that is can have variable meanings, both derivative, transformative, and constitutive. She also defines the ‘digital active domain’ as a space where the constituted ecology of meaning is larger than the technical infrastructure on its own. Rather users mediate culture and meaning through online and networked spaces and platforms: the same platform can be used differently by different users which highlights the imbrications between IT and social contexts.

    Socio-Digital Formations are defined by Sassen as electronic structures that reflect both technical capabilities and endogenized social logics. Sassen’s Open Society Foundation project asks ‘[h]ow digitization can enhance the work-life of low-wage workers by addressing specific needs of workers in the work-space and their neighbourhoods’. The digital under-utilisation of mobile and networked technologies amplifies the construction of radical differentiation between work and life space for the low-wage worker.

    Sassen then explores several apps which show how the neighbourhoods of low-wage workers can be enabled and mobilised.

    Emergency Nanny
    Reconciles working parents needs to be in contact with their children within closed work systems by utilising adults who are stable or static in the neighbourhood to act as a ‘emergency nanny’. These subjects could be the local hairdresser or butcher, and so on. Not only does the app prevent the tension of working parents between being available for their children and following work rules, it also mobilises subjects in the neighbourhood to emerge beyond their roles into a support system. It thus becomes the first step of a trajectory towards the mobilisation of neighbourhood.

    For teachers and after school carers - allows easy connectivity to parents in case of student lateness or absenteeism, again reconciling the work/parent labour divide of low-wage working parents. This app too becomes a part of the trajectory towards mobilising the neighbourhood into a support system by allowing subjects involvement in the support of low-wage workers.

    Neat Streak
    Let’s home cleaners communicate with clients in quick, non-obtrusive way to determine tasks - combines cash and loan requests as well as translating Spanish to English and vice versa.

    Online intervention which replaces typical therapy with crowd-sourced response to anxiety and depression. Targets low-wage working men who are uncomfortable or unable to go to shrinks. It becomes one step in the trajectory towards trust between subjects, enabling them to talk in their own words and mobilising a support neighbourhood network.

    For Sassen these apps and others show how platforms can be used to strengthen the collective space of the disadvantaged and mobilise groups. They emphasize the relocalisation of parts of the economy instead of delegating outwards to corporations, building neighbourhood social back-ups.  

    As a final point Sassen argues for the valorisation of the various actors by ‘open-sourcing the neighbourhood’. By valuing the knowledge that each individual actor has, we encourage them to engage and feel a part of their space. She uses Boston’s Street Bump app as an example where digital interventions can enable feelings of contribution and meaning through interaction.



    Spher begins by saying that “You cannot get by just be being better. You have to change the rules”. He argues that the economy we’re in requires a new framework.

    Using a clip from Spongebob to illustrate his point, Spher argues that Mr.Krabs question “why aren’t you working harder” reflects the inherent mode of capitalism. Increased surplus from fixed wage of worker means progress, or in other terms Spongebob working harder would increase productivity. Mr.Krabs also gives Spongebob a spatula, or a tool -the means of production. This, Spher says, highlights the question of who owns the dominant means of production. Where it used to be industry and factories, today the means of production is algorithms.

    Showing another clip from Spongebob, Spher argues that in an ideal world better means of production means more efficency, and this in turn creates progress. The wage is independent from the value the worker produces, and they earn a living and fair (earn part of surplus) wage. The profit earned is spent on public return and investment and as such, in this model, profit through progress translates profit to consumer.

    But another Spongebob clip highlights what Spher identifies as the Capitalist point of view: that you don’t need progress to increase profits. Instead you can increase it through various strategies including: primitive accumulation; externalisation of costs; market distortion; social power; and the overexploitation of labor.

    Here Spher turns to Stephen Marglin’s  What do bosses do? Marglin asks what we mean when we say ‘a mode of production if technologically superior’. It is defined as making things with less input, with technological superiority as ideal. Marglin argues that  the Capitalists ‘made themselves essential as mediators’ entrenched in the mode of production.

    Spher uses George Perec’s W or The Memory of Childhood to argue that competition doesn’t equal increased productivity. In the novel full competition in the fascist society translates to low performance among the athletes. Spher argues that innovation needs free space. Moreover, there are very few places in economy where competition happens; and if it does it is competition by size rather than price. This economy then requires a structural change in order to reinstate innovation.

    A final Spongebob clip shows the workers of the Krusty Krab rebelling against the owner Mr.Krabs and his ‘smelly greed’. Spher uses this passage to outline several key functions of resistance: ‘workers united’ shows union organising ; ‘people’s hammer’ shows political organising; and the ‘dismantl[ing] of the oppressive establishment’ represents a transformative movement.

    Spher argues that we need to set-up movements within frameworks of new labour rights, which include: 20% time for all; the right to know each other (contact); balanced job packages; command as rule based management; and the decriminalisation of labour. We also need new entrepreneurial rights emphasising space for small companies, including: network neutrality; supply, service and cloud neutrality; right of attention; right of constitution; and sovereignty.

    Spher calls for a new mode of regulation for a new regime of accumulation which involves the nationalisation of investment; nationalisation of knowledge; finance-driven being replaced by innovation driven accumulation; and command-based being superseded by cooperation-based culture.

    He ends by saying that a society based on cooperativism needs to free up productivity for everyone - otherwise we are just new business.



    Morell’s presentation focused the P2P Value Project findings on governance and value in common based peer production, looking at the effects of cooperatives as infrastructure providers.

    She begins by signposting us to the P2Pvalue project which focused on a sample of 300 cases of common based peer production (CBPP) which can be found at: http://directory.p2pvalue.eu

    Morell defines common based peer production through three constitutive elements, including: collaborative production; peer to peer relationships (situated on limited hierarchical command and limited mercantile exchange); and common resources (including general interest and open access, reproducibility and derivativeness).

    Common based peer production (versus corporate based) first appeared on the Internet, with classic cases including Wikipedia and FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open Sourced Software). Yet, the P2Pvalue findings’ show a double expansion of CBPP into new areas. This has lead to the identification of 33 areas of activity including citizen media; gaming communities; P2P currency; sensor networks and open design. Expansion has occurred through hybridization with markets including crowdsourcing and peer markets. However, in order for these to be successful we need to delimitate CBPP and consider strategies for its scalability.

    CBPP ecosystem: Attempting to identify relationships between CBPP discovered clusters as in industrial production. .com less centralised (profit based)

    Morell argues that traditional theories of value do not apply to CBPP so we need alternative strategies to assess value in this type of production by asking ‘what is valuable’ and ‘how do we measure value’. The project identified new dimensions of value within CBPP’s including: community building; mission accomplishment; social use value; reputation; monetary value; derivative value. Using indicators linked to different measures of value, they found that half of the cases assign themselves between 7 and 10 in mission accomplishment signifying ‘happy’ and satisfied groups. However, Morell identifies that 39% of cases have budgets of less than 1000euros. To be provocative she asks whether, in this case, the groups have an anti-money character and whether they are constituting production without money.

    Looking at the infrastructural architecture of the groups surveyed, Morell finds that decentralised governance is still very, very rare. The most common form (46%) is that of centralised but reproducible infrastructure, which is the form of Wikipedia. However, 57% of the groups have a cooperative architecture; whilst 28% are for profit; 7.2% public; and 6.8% informal or non-legal. Morell argues this shows that the cooperative like infrastructure provision values peer self-governance.

    This cooperative infrastructure also favours reputation on the web (Alexa Ranking, Google page, etc) but not on social networks. The groups tend to favor smaller communities but are, in turn, more collaborative. Morell argues there are significant political implications of this turn to highly interactive social processes and collaboration over the reinforcement of competition.

    When looking at how to negotiate strategies for scaling up CBPP’s, Morell offers several points, arguing that we need to expand our agenda ‘beyond Uber’. As well as the tecnnological (block chain) and legal (CC) inventions, we must consider sustainability beyond money and create ambitious approaches to reinvent intermediaries around new conceptions of value. In line with the ideological shift represented by the 15million and Occupy Wall Street movements, we need to gain majorities between middle and popular classes and gain governmental power to enable public administration transformation. Morell conceptualises a new hegemonic economic model which connects several intersecting paths of economic innovation, including CBPP and ‘traditional’ social and solidarity economy as well as the reproduction economy into the new energies of the circular economy.



    Kleiner introduces himself as a software developer and artist that focuses on the political economy of online spaces. He aims to create artworks that confront social conditions in networked places, for example, the ‘app that delivers privilige’: http://whitesave.me

    He wants to talk to us today about ‘venture communism’, ‘technological disobedience’, ‘counter politics’, and ‘counterantidisintermediation’ as strategies against capitalism.

    Kleiner beings by explaining the 1990s excitement around ‘disintermediation’ and the idea of ‘peer to peer utopia’. However, he notes, there was also a movement of antidisintermediation to confront and resist these strategies. As a result, today we are in a phase of what Kleiner (with tongue half in cheek) coins ‘counterantidisintermediation’, where we need strategies to negate the legacy of the antidisintermediation movement.

    Kleiner outlines the ‘End to End’ principle from computer science, which argues that all functionality should be in the end nodes and not in intermediary nodes. Translating that for all of us non-programmers, Kleiner explains that Facebook is an example where all interaction on the interface is carried out in Facebook servers, or the intermediary nodes. End to end would mean communicating through software installed on both computers, cutting out middle man and in turn creating less censorship and greater individual control, resulting in greater privacy, resistance to surveillance and scalability.

    Kleiner returns to the 1990s internet and characterises it as ‘quite cooperative’, before positing the question of ‘so… what happened?’ He argues the most interesting feature of the early internet is that it was based on an etiquette of users using it correctly and cooperative ideas rather than top-down restrictions. But profit requires centralisation and so centralised venture capitalist platforms emerge. He uses the example of Compuserve as a centralised (and failed) alternative to the internet. He argues that in  a backlash to this, the ‘capitalists’ invested in the internet boom and achieved ownership of the internet infrastructure.

    As such, platform cooperatives should not be merely imitations of capitalist platform; but they need to be counterantidisintermediatary. Kleiner posits that cargo cult platforms do not assess the fundamental problem of capitalism. Moreover, our apps are built on hardware supply chains built on war, colonialism and inequality.

    He shows us a proposal of venture communism as ‘networks of federated cooperatives, engaged in commons-based production, employing technological disobedience to build counterantidisintermediationist platforms that apply the economic power they create towards counter politics’.

    He continues by arguing that cargo cult platforms are impossible as they cannot scale with user expansion. Servers and admins for this kind of scale must get paid, and this in turn results in investment from funders and their drive for profitable return through advertisement. In counter to this, we need to create end to end platforms that hold counterantidisintermediationist principles.Innovation must be focused toward the end of the product lifecycle. ‘Hack! mod! recycle!’, Kleiner says we need to use technology better, longer, and different to overcome supply issues.

    Venture Communism proposes that companies are:
    -Cooperative: Owned equally by all members
    -Federated: Members of many coops share ownership
    -Commons based: Productive assets are held in common
    -Open: All workers are entitled to become members

    It is in then the revolutionary counterpart to venture capital - defined by its refusal to coordinate production. It is upheld by the rules that: labour earns membership; mutualisation is based on rent’ all members are equal and all workers can become members.

    Kleiner ends by arguing that venture communism is an organisational form for the worker struggle - it is vitally a part of struggle and not the end product. To be successful it must resist integration into capitalism and/or failure through technological disobedience and counterantidisintermediation principles. 

    Categories: Blog

    Threats and Challenges to Cooperative Economies: Platform Cooperativism Conference

    November 13, 2015 - 9:55am

    What challenges must be overcome to move towards cooperative economies?

    This weekend, I'm here at the Platform cooperativism conference, where I'll be talking on Saturday at 4pm. This session on "making it work" featured a series of sociologists, legal scholars, and business scholars to discuss this question.

    Juliet Schor (@JulietSchor): How To Build And Sustain Cooperative Platforms

    What could the platform cooperativism movement learn from how people are experiencing peer economies? When we try to clone the heart of these platforms, what does that heart look like?

    Juliet, a professor of sociology at Boston college, talks to us about her work on "connected consumption," who has been studying the "connected" or "sharing" economy, looking at work in for-profit as well as nonprofit contexts. They've done over 200 interviews and hundreds of hours of participant observation with the largest time bank in the US, a food swap network, and a large makerspace (Artisans Asylum?), as well as airbnb, Turo/RelayRides, TaskRabbit, PostMates, and profit/nonprofit activities in open access education. Juliet puts these on a two-dimension access of peer-to-peer/centralized and profit/non-profit.

    The first lesson from her work is that it's important to get the value proposition correct. Many of the nonprofits aren't delivering value to people, and the thing that will get people engaged will be if it's valuable to them. For-profits are nailing the value proposition for consumers, which is why consumers are flocking to them. They're also getting the right "consumer habitus" -- the experience that consumers are interested in. Furthermore, workers have also been happy with their earning potential, although things may have changed since their fieldwork in 2013.

    In contrast, non-profit initiatives are generally failing on value. The time bank has too little volume and struggle to create value. The food swap also had volume problems.

    Secondly, these platforms can enhance inequality. Juliet points out that these platforms making working class work--blue and pink collar work-- de-stigmatized for college and other higher class people. This shouldn't be surprising, says Juliet, since the middle class is less well off than before. She argues that we're not seeing poor people work on these platforms, so they're not addressing inequality.

    Juliet did not expect to find that the non-profits are sites of almost surprising levels of class, race, and gender exclusivity. They involve high cultural capital people who develop in-groups, developing cultures that are extremely off-putting to people who are not in those groups. Not only are the demographics of these sites so gender-segregated, so white, and so highly educated -- it's also the way people are acting in these sites. In Bordeiu's "high cultural capital" idea of people, you get people with lots of thoughtful ideology, but in practice, they act in very different ways. "You need to start your co-operative with the people you end up with," she argues.

    Designers of platforms often promise all sorts of equality. Juliet's research finds that this just isn't true, either in for-profit contexts or nonprofits.

    Frank Pasquale: Risk Mitigation Strategies for Platform Cooperatives

    What are the evolving legal problems that might arise for platform co-ops as they gain speed. He's going to talk about the risks to co-ops from governments, as well as from dominant platforms. He's drawn from empirical work by Tom Slee.

    In the early stage, co-operative platforms will be seen as hobbies and curiosities, tiny things that are nice and addressing some kind of problem. In this early stage, large corporations might welcome the co-ops. As government starts trying to regulate these large corporations, lawyers at these corporations will push back against regulation by pointing out the importance of supporting these co-ops. Paperwork itself is another problem for new co-operatives. Frank argues that it may be possible to get some exceptions for small and early stage co-ops at the incubator stage.

    In the next stage, we might get an ecosystem of smallish competitors. At that point, we'll start facing the paradoxes of platforms. Referring to Zak Stone's Living and Dying on Airbnb, he points out that companies often position themselves as "just a platform" and disclaim liability. Platform co-operatives might try to take more responsibility and control over how things work, but they might also take on more liability. Uber unsuccessfully argued that it's not responsible for discrimination on the platform, but co-operatives might take on that liability.

    In a further stage, the industry may start consolidating, creating issues related to antitrust law. In the United States, antitrust law is fine with monopolies that have 80% - 90% of the market, it's fine so long as they're not abusing that power. In contrast, if you have lots of little firms banding together, they are often seen as a horizontal conspiracy to control trade. When publishers ganged up on Amazon, that was seen as possible conspiracy. Pasquale worries that this might happen to platform co-operatives as they try to work together or create standards together.

    If there's consolidation and the people behind the platform co-op say to the Uber drivers that they would like them to "multi-home" by taking rides from Uber and the co-op. At this point, the dominant platform might introduce a non-compete requirement. In "1099 as antitrust," Steve Randy Waldman suggests that the IRS shouldn't allow 1099s unless workers are also allowed to work for more than one employer.

    To conclude, Frank says that we need to learn the lessons of other data-intensive industries like search. Whenever an entity says "we're just an app" to avoid responsibility, that self-deprecation needs to be taken seriously. Finally, whenever people try to conflate a technology with a firm by saying "Uber" or "airbnb" brought us this, we need to remember that it was people. These firms are not set in stone, he says; we're going to need a lot of pro-active regulation and law.

    Arun Sundararajan (@digitalarun) An Economic Perspective on Cooperatives, Blockchain-Based Collectives and Other Distributed Collaborative Organizations

    Run describes the rise of what he calls crowd-based capitalism, and the ways that companies are replacing certain kinds of work with new infrastructures. These platforms take things that used to be in the personal space and blend them with the professional, "for money" world. Arun argues that we're struggling to create new categorizations, new language that we can use to understand how to regulate them. He offers an overview of ways that platforms are addressing banking (Kiva), hotels(airbnb), retailers(etsy), high-end-retail (rent the runway), transportation (Uber), diversified labor (TaskRabbit), personal services (Shyp), corporate services, rental car companies, and risk capital intermediaries.

    How do platforms affect wage rates? Arun shares data he analyzed that compared average wage rate for a region to the comparable digital wage rate in that area. For work that requires you to be present, the wage rate is greater, while for work that is remote, the wage rate is smaller.

    How do these platforms affect people's standard of living, Arun shares results from his work that suggest that people will sometimes use these platforms to access a higher standard of living, buying that Tesla because they know they can rent it out. The jury is still out however, for whether these platforms will be a path to entrepreneurship and innovation, equalize access to infrastructure, equalize channels for growing one's human capital, or equalizing access to financial capital.

    Arun concludes by talking about the relative efficiency of ownership structures. Fast-moving industries seem to favor traditional corporations, he says, while co-operatives tend to do best in slower-moving industries -- exactly things like ride sharing, etc.. But could co-operatives dislodge incumbent companies? For companies that don't require in-person work, the network effects are strong, and it will be hard to push out incumbents. On the other hand, Arun argues that the network effects of ride sharing are very local -- people don't care who the leader in LA is when they're in New York.

    Finally Arun asks if blockchain structures are going to lead to viable organizations. If we want these blockchain systems to work, he argues, we need de-centralized search and discovery, logistics, and trust.

    Yochai Benkler Peer mutualism and the future of capitalism

    One way of thinking about the problems we're talking about today is as a response to a particular class of technologies and companies that have aggressive business models, says Yochai. This is not terrible, he says, but it might be more productive to look at a 40 year process of rising inequality throughout many economies. The critical reason to think of the 40 year trajectory is to understand that it also masks two distinct phenomena. The first is the separation of income growth for median income from productivity growth in the economy-- the stagnation of growth for the middle class and the stratospheric rise of the top 1%, 0.1% and 0.001% independent of what was happening for the rest. For 20 years, the dominant belief was that technology was increasing returns to skills, therefore people with high skills became more productive. Income follows productivity in an efficient market, and therefore inequality grew-- that was the belief.

    In the last 18 months, there's been increasing review of the last 20 years evidence, suggesting that skills-based tech change has only a weak correlation to changes, and that the other explanations are institutional ones. At the top, you have stock options, experts and compensation committees. At the bottom, you have weak labor standards, deunionization, and reduced welfare payments.

    Benkler argues that we should be thinking about two things. Firstly, there's a political theory underlying free software and cooperation: that if we roll our own we will be more effective at preserving freedom than if we build systems through government. There's a correlation between this and co-operativism because we need to think of co-ops in relation to what. The alternative is trade unionism, you're accepting the mode of productions and working to build political power in order to redistribute through the state and use the power of the state to regulate and contain. Co-ops are similar to the ideology of free software: we build and own our own things and shift power through changed ownership structures.

    We need to imagine three sources of stress in the coming economy, says Yochai. Firstly, automation was dehumanizing and making a skilled person into an unskilled worker. Now we're giving robots the work. Secondly, the temp economy has been generalized into things like TaskRabbit. Finally, we have the use of data to extract value, using surveillance to manipulate people. The latter two are more addressable by co-operatives, but not the first.

    If the network information economy was about moving things that had been in concentrated transactional frameworks into combinations of social and market production, we're seeing platform companies create extractive versions of commons based peer production. The same dynamics and efficiencies behind the success of things like open source and Wikipedia are being used by companies to extract value.

    Yochai notes that commons based peer production was based on volunteer effort to create freely-available outputs. But a transition to peer cooperativism must deal with the challenges of worker-owned and produced cooperatives. Competition constrains operations. Although being in the market constrains your ethics, he argues that inefficiencies in the market make it possible to be wealthy. There's no systematic data that co-ops necessarily involve higher wages. The wages might be more stable, and there might be more poverty alleviation, but there's no evidence that they can offer higher wages. Furthermore, co-ops seem to succeed in some places and not succeed in others.

    If you imagine it and do it in time, you can do it and capture the market. It just needs to happen and then it stabilizes, says Yochai.

    Competing with on-demand economies is possible. It's not clear that one can just do the same thing as companies. Uber has clearly solved the problem from a consumer-side. It wouldn't take much change at the consumer end. But it's not yet clear how to create reliable income for people from unreliable demand. Uber doesn't have to solve that problem because their business model externalizes risk.

    You also have to deal with the problems that consumer co-ops have had. One of the great powers of networked economies is that you have people with very different levels of engagement. In consumer co-ops you have such diffuse membership that it's often impossible to differentiate between a loyalty card at a corporate supermarket and membership in a co-op. These problems haven't been solved yet in peer production. We know that there are problems of concentration of power there too, Yochai says.

    Yochai also talks about the idea of co-op alliances. Instead of thinking about apps that compete, he urges people to think about an ecosystem that is working together to create co-ops, as well as mobilizing politically.

    Finally, Yochai urges people to commit to an open commons. The only thing that will make platform cooperativism work, he argues, will be a shift in ideologies, beliefs about what is right and wrong. It means thinking about an open commons for service models, material goods, data portability, and open access.

    Rachel Sherman facilitated the discussion, and I was able to get part of it.

    Trebor asks Juliet about the "habitus" of users being exclusivist. Was it because they tried to do so much in person? Juliet mentions the work on Iron Laws of Oligarchy. When you create an egalitarian system without traditional status markers, you get a new status system that comes out in the cultural realm. It's very intense status jockeying around cultural values. She describes the idea of "ego habitus," where egalitarianism is a high-cultural taste that is used to jockey for power in these spaces.

    A participant asks about the idea of consumer cooperatives. Juliet agrees that it's important to think about both sides of the market. If you just organize one side of the market and not the other, you deal with problems of exploitation. Frank talks about the decline of group purchasing organizations. Hospitals used to create these group purchasing orgs in order to collectively bargain with medical device suppliers, but those GPOs got captured by the suppliers.

    An audience member argues that the failure of antitrust has been a political economy failure -- as the U.S. offered various exemptions to different industries. How do we move back towards strong anti-trust regulation? Frank takes inspiration from the cultural battle that Zephyr Teachout is fighting. Another option is to keep hectoring regulators by comparing them to Europe. But in so many U.S. law schools, the thought is often, "how can we make it a better market" rather than, "what can we learn from others?"

    An audience member asks what the opportunities for blockchain are. Arun thinks that blockchain technologies provide new codebase templates for alternative models of organizing. Discussions over the promise of the blockchain have been focused on moves by large financial institutions to create more effective, privately owned markets. Arun argues that "the initial new organizational forms we see emerge that are built on top of the blockchain may not be the distributed, collaborative organizations that people imagine." On bitcoin, only the people managing the transactions are making money from it. He argues that it's hard to embed a wider set of values into a system.

    Yochai responds by saying that the promise of blockchain is that you will circumvent the platform that provides claims and promises as the source of concentration. You embed that in an algorithm and you will route around that particular place where concentration happens. In the case of bitcoin, concentration moves somewhere else. If you look at more recent, sophisticated systems, you can still develop oligarchies. Just like Wikipedia, you could tell people to "go fork it" but of course you can't fork Wikipedia. So you have to bring an ethical commitment and organizational awareness to whatever new layer is open to being captured by any group, because the technology has just shifted the point where you reconcentrate.

    Frank responds with worries that trusting algorithms participates in a wider, longer move to de-politicize fiscal policy and talks about what it would take to re-politicize them.

    In response to the next question, Juliet talks about her hopes that platforms might reduce the transaction costs of starting a co-operative. If you can figure those out more quickly and get the right structure and rules in the platform, perhaps you might be able to scale it rapidly? She argues for a certain level of democratic consensus, but her hunch about many of the existing, offline co-operatives is that the democratic work you do to decide the rules is what holds you back-- larger co-ops like Mondragon are able to scale because they've already made those decisions.

    yochai benklerFrank PasqualeJuliet SchorArun Sundararajanyochai benklerRachel Sherman
    Categories: Blog

    What is Platform Cooperativism and Why is it Important?

    November 13, 2015 - 7:50am

    (this blog post was written with Katie Arthur)

    What is platform cooperativism and why is it needed?

    Today, we're here at the New School in New York City for the Platform Cooperativism conference, which is bringing together a remarkable range of speakers on the theme of creating online platforms that are owned and operated by their users and workers. These two days feature speakers from a wide range of academic disciplines alongside people sharing their experiences of running co-ops and advocating for fair work in platform economies.

    Trebor starts out his jeremiad telling us that the missing element in discussions of economic problems is the lack of something we can say yes to -- something that people could actually build and support. In this first session of the day, Unpacking Platforms, Trebor Scholz and Janelle Orsi offer a set of principles and platform examples that they hope will frame our conversations over the next two days.

    Consequences of the Sharing Economy in the US

    Software companies, says Trebor, have created new markets where none existed before-- for people with surplus resources. And consumers like this, because the so-called sharing economy is really an on-demand labor system. These companies that create these monopolies manage to create empires off other people's infrastructure. They're running off your car, your apartment, your labor, your emotions, and your time. They are logistics companies where all participants pay the middleman.

    The on-demand economy illustrates a shift away from employment by restructuring work so they can categorize it as independent contracting. This shifts the burden of major life risks -- unemployment, health, and old age -- onto workers. This sector uses the language of entrepreneurship and flexibility to talk about a system that is centrally controlled. At the same time, Trebor says, these companies are undermining organized labor and public infrastructure.

    This on-demand economy is not a minor part of the U.S. economy, says Trebor. One in three US workers is an independent contractor. Without employment, these workers are rightsless. Should we use terms like "innovation" and "efficiency" to celebrate this state of play? How can we call the sharing economy innovative and efficient if it promotes a reduction of rights, classism, and racism. These companies, he says, dodge taxes, route around labor laws, and operate illegally in some cities.

    Trebor also argues that academics who do work on platforms often focus on understanding and extending the power of these companies rather than trying to understand the long-term implications of these systems or imagine alternatives.
    Is it really so unthinkable to escape companies like Facebook, Google, Crowdflower, and others? Trebor argues that none of the issues of fairness, labor rights, healthcare, and privacy can be changed until we reimagine shared ownership, democratic governance, and solidarity. Even when companies try to be nice to workers, there's a distrust, he says, in those companies. Is it really impossible to shift structures of the Internet so everyone can reap the fruits of their own labor?

    What is Platform Cooperativism
    Platform cooperativism, says Trebor, is about cloning the technological heart of online platforms and puts it to work with a cooperative model, one that puts workers, owners, communities, and cities -- in a kind of solidarity that leads to political power.

    Trebor offers a series of types of platform coops.

    Cooperative online labor brokerages & marketplaces

    In Germany, Fairmondo started as a global marketplace owned by its users -- like a co-operative ebay. In SF, Loconomics is a freelance co-operative where freelancers have shares and have a voice in running the company.

    Produser-Owned Platform Cooperative
    These sites, like Resonate (music), Members Media (film), and Stocksy (stock photography), allow producers to co-own the platforms to which they are selling their work. The objective of these co-operatives are to create careers for their producers, who co-own systems.

    City-Owned Platforms
    Trebor notes that even in the US, cities own hotels, hospitals, and many public services. He describes work by Janelle Orsi to imagine publicly-owned platforms: muni-bnb would be a city-owned airbnb system that invests profits into city projects. all-bnb would be modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund and would pay residents for the profits made by sharing hosting. Another idea is the "sharing city" Seoul, who offer a city-operated taxi hailing system.

    Union-backed platforms

    The California App-Based Drivers Association unionizes drivers who participate in sharing economy platforms. In New Jersey, the Union Taxi Cooperative also operates its own platform.

    Cooperatives From Within
    Trebor talks about the idea of worker cooperatives forming "in the belly of the sharing economy" if governments decided to break up these monopolies and convert them into co-ops.

    The Institution as Peer to Peer Protocol
    Another option is to create infrastructures, an idea promoted by advocates of blockchain architectures, including the "Resources" system in Israel.

    Principles of Platform Co-operative Ecosystems
    Co-operatives don't exist in a vacuum. They need funding schemes, lawyers, software engineers, workers, and designers.

    • Funders: like the Worker’s Lab and Mondragon. In Spain, Mondragon works like a development bank.
    • Software: Platform co-ops need to be open source. Workers need to be able to understand and order the code that shapes their environments. Why couldn't there be a foundation that coordinates all of these open source efforts?
    • Governance: Platforms for consensus building and democratic governance are needed (like Lumio or Intertwinkles)
    • Platform as protocol: Perhaps people could use the blockchain in interesting ways to support shared rather than centralized ownership.
    • Licenses: Some examples of interesting work in this space include commons-based reciprocity licenses

    What should we ask and implement within this economy? Trebor asks us to imagine how the Internet could be owned and governed differently? Here are things we would have to consider:

    1. Ownership
    2. Decent Pay
    3. Transparency
    4. Acknowledgment and appreciation
    5. Communication between workers and platform operators
    6. A Protective Legal Framework
    7. Worker-owned reputation systems
    8. Constant surveillance and reviews should be rejected
    9. Decent digital work has to have clear boundaries

    Trebor concludes by talking about why it's important to have these ambitious conversations: to help ourselves be able to imagine an economy that benefits all. Rather than thinking about apps, we should be thinking about well-paid and well-cared-for people, who are the foundation for stable businesses. There are endless objections and challenges, says Trebor. Platform cooperatives may have their own problems and aren't a silver bullet for society. But they are a vehicle for like-minded people to organize and fight for basic democratic rights for workers.

    Janelle Orsi's Response
    After Trebor's opening talk, Janelle Orsi gets on stage to respond and react. Janelle is the executive director of the Sustainable Economies Law Center in Oakland.

    Platform companies like Uber don't actually own many things -- they own people's captive attention and loyalty, getting a $50 billion valuation purely on the beliefs of people. That can change, she argues. Taking back platforms is actually easier than change in other areas -- rather than contest over resources, we just have to clone the heart of these platforms and use them instead.

    The fight for better pay and benefits are important, agrees Janelle. Ultimately however, we need to rethink these structures. As a lawyer, Janelle has studied labor law, which assumes a master-slave situation that assumes that the person in control also is maximizing their own profit. By democratizing platforms, she argues, we have an opportunity to unbundle that combination.

    Janelle opens up by talking about common things she's heard when people discuss platform co-ops.

    Does the design of co-op platforms need to be as fancy and pretty as big corporations? No, Janelle says. We can also choose platforms for their justness.

    Should corporate platforms be nicer to workers? Janelle says that it's risky. You can't have a co-operative with investors who try to maximize their wealth, nor could you do so with a company that's trying to maximize its wealth.

    Some people say that co-operatives are slow, difficult, and have long meetings. Janelle thinks that the biggest challenge is actually to stop people from saying that. Legal issues, getting financing, creating governance structures are possible-- we can figure these things out, she says. The main challenge is to build literacy over what is a cooperative and convince people that they're possible.

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