fitzyfitzyfitzy     06 December 2017

Venture-backed start-ups and public companies get a lot of attention. They are the peacocks and elephants of the business ecosystem. But what are the earthworms, the field-mice, the platypuses? There are lot of interesting businesses out there built with very different DNA. One of them is the Data Commons Co-op, and more of them are members of members of that co-op. Let me break that down.

In the eyes of the law, the DCC is a Mercantile Cooperative, incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (opencorporates listing). It is organized as a shared services cooperative, where members band together to lower operating costs for services that they all need.

The Data Commons Co-op greases the flow of data between communities in the cooperative, solidarity, new, call-it-what-you-will economy. The co-op not only serves these communities, it is owned by them.

(from datacommons.coop)

Some of the members of the DCC are individuals such as academics, but most are umbrella or support organizations – nationwide federations (e.g. the US Federation of Worker Co-ops), state-level development organizations (e.g. Cooperative Maine), sector-level organizations (e.g. the Cooperative Grocer Network), and others. So the members of the members of the co-op are thousands of fun places like Local Sprouts, a worker-owned café and bakery in downtown Portland Maine.

Financially, the Data Commons Co-op is engineered by its bylaws to operate at cost. It has a tiny budget, funded mostly from membership dues. In 2017 it has no staff; most of the work today is done by a board of directors, and occasional volunteers (I’m one). There are always new and interesting people joining and leaving.

The main niche the co-op has found for itself is backing member-created maps and directories. For example, the U.S. Solidarity Economy Mapping Platform, solidarityeconomy.us, builds on DCC software, and relies on DCC hosting. The co-op is becoming a pool for census projects and member directories, reducing costs and clearing away grit. It is a place where people go to ask questions about the weird and wonderful organizations shaping the cooperative/solidarity/new economy.

The DCC can’t answer a lot of those questions yet. The find.coop directory was an attempt by the co-op to make a “stone soup” map of all the organizations it (and its members) knew about. The idea was that members would chip lists of organizations they could vouch for, and the directory would pull them all together.

What we’ve learned since making this prototype:

  • Most fresh, reliable information comes from organizations making a determined survey or census of a part of the economy they care about and have expertise in.
  • Drive-by individual contributions can happen, but are not a great starting point for the DCC at this stage of its development. Getting moderation and trust right at this level of granularity seems expensive.

I’m now working on a new map (codenamed “stone souper”) incorporating these lessons. The main change is an extreme streamlining of how member-contributed listings are added.

  • Every listing in the database can be tracked to a contributing member. All listings from a given contributor can be removed or replaced without trouble.
  • That means contributors will feel less pressure to have their listings in perfect shape before chipping in, and can be secure in knowing they can pull the listings if something unexpected comes up.

The main technical change in the map has been to move more intelligence into search and display, so that related listings are discovered, grouped, and summarized appropriately. With the existing directory, it was practically impossible with the volunteer time available to import data that overlapped with existing listings, including previous versions of the same listings (d’oh!)

Excited to be finally building this, and thanks to all the DCC members who’ve been so patient and helpful along the way!

@fitzyfitzyfitzy