elinor-ostrom

Data as Commons

Today, we are confronted with a marketplace — in this case, a market for personal data — where alternative economic approaches can lead to very different outcomes. And I suggest we consider structuring a commons in which the rights to all of our personal data are transferred.


Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economics for her groundbreaking research on the manner in which folks like Swiss farmers share the high Alpine pastures so as to avoid ecological damage there. This is a great example of how treating a natural resource as a commons works out to be inherently less damaging than approaches based on private property.

Some background: the Swiss farmers share the pastures, and have developed complex — but equitable — ways to allocate grazing of the pastures across all the dairy herders, so that in dry years all share the pains of drought together, and in wetter years, all benefit. Contrast this approach with a private property approach, where the pastures might have been divided, with each farmer having to make do with what the weather might bring. If some pastures are dry one year, the farmers there would be incented to overgraze, which can cause long-term damage. Sooner or later, all pastures will have dry years, and as a result, privatizing the pastures would lead inevitably to greater ecological impact.

Of course, those in favor of privatizing might point out that given a dry year on one side of the pasturage, those on the wet side might be able to extract greater profits from the marketplace, since the other farmers would bring less cheese and milk to market. However, as Ostrom pointed out, that seems like a net positive only to those interested in maximizing profits in the short term, since in the long run, the privatizing approach always leads to degrading the pastures, and ultimately, to the farmers as a whole becoming poorer.

But Personal Data Isn’t Cheese, Is It?

How does the experience of Swiss dairy farmers relate to the principles that motivate We The Data? Today, we are confronted with a marketplace — in this case, a market for personal data — where alternative economic approaches can lead to very different outcomes. And I suggest we consider structuring a commons in which the rights to all of our personal data are transferred. Rather than privatizing, or breaking up the data ‘pasturage’ into small plots — where each of us might attempt to control access to our personal data — we should act in concert, like the Swiss farmers, to manage the resource and to bring it to market.

Of course, the picture is a bit more complex, in our situation, since the data that is being collected is not in our direct control, the way that pastures and cows are for the farmers. The data is being created in fact by a broad spectrum of different agents: apps on our iPhones, police departments scanning our license plates with video cameras, search engines, and credit card companies. We will ultimately have to negotiate with all of these agents to have them play by some rules that we deem fair, and under terms we decide are equitable. But before we do that, like the Swiss farmers, we will have to sit down amongst ourselves to work out a system to share the pastures. And then we can take our product to market, and see what the market will bear.

Steps Toward A Data Commons

Ostrom suggested that there are eight design principles for common pool resource (CPR) management (via Wikipedia):

  1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties);
  2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources,organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

My sense is that this forms a to do list for any groups seeking to collectivize control to personal data. The first point is perhaps as important as all the rest, stating that only direct stakeholders involved in the resource should have a voice in its management. In this case, that means that those corporate and governmental organizations that want to gather data on us, and exploit it, should have to do so on our terms, not on theirs.

Elinor Ostrom & Common Pool Resource Management

Elinor Ostrom, an American political economist, was awarded the 2009 Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, which she shared with Oliver E. Williamson, for “her analysis of economic governance, especially the commons.”

Ostrom is considered one of the leading scholars in the study of common pool resources (CPR), in particular, how humans interact with ecosystems to maintain long-term sustainable resource yields. Common pool resources include many forests, fisheries, oil fields, grazing lands, and irrigation systems.

She conducted her field studies on the management of pasture by locals in Africa and irrigation systems management in villages of western Nepal (e.g. Dang). Ostrom’s work has considered how societies have developed diverse institutional arrangements for managing natural resources and avoiding ecosystem collapse in many cases, even though some arrangements have failed to prevent resource exhaustion. 

Ostrom identifies eight “design principles” of stable local common pool resource management:

  1. Clearly defined boundaries (effective exclusion of external un-entitled parties;
  2. Rules regarding the appropriation and provision of common resources that are adapted to local conditions;
  3. Collective-choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process;
  4. Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators;
  5. A scale of graduated sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules;
  6. Mechanisms of conflict resolution that are cheap and of easy access;
  7. Self-determination of the community recognized by higher-level authorities;
  8. In the case of larger common-pool resources,organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small local CPRs at the base level.

The above principles have since been slightly modified and expanded to include a number of additional variables believed to affect the success of self-organized governance systems, including effective communication, internal trust and reciprocity, and the nature of the resource system as a whole.