Recap from Data Together Annual Meeting

Representatives of Data Together, a partnership between EDGI, Protocol Labs, and, held our 2018 annual meeting in Toronto during the last days of August, with the generous sponsorship of the Technoscience Research Unit at the University of Toronto. We not only enjoyed each other’s company, but discussed our progress over the previous year and were able to clarify the broad mandate of the partnership and articulate concrete goals for the upcoming year. This post summarizes the outcomes of the meeting and also provides some background on the larger project.

The initial impetus for Data Together came out of our involvement in the grassroots DataRescue movement (in which EDGI played a leading role) as volunteers sought to preserve U.S federal environmental data from potential removal by the incoming administration. As we reflected on the accomplishments and shortcomings of that hectic effort, many of us felt that we had run head-on into a flaw based on the structure of the internet itself. The scientific data on which so much of what we know is based—the data we need to make informed decisions about many of the most important issues facing our world today—are entrusted to governments and corporations, which often do not have motivation to preserve and foreground evidence, especially as it relates to environmental harms generated by the status quo. The Data Together concept, articulated most clearly and explicitly by Protocol Labs’ Matt Zumwalt in Summer 2017, used these insights as a starting point for an inclusive vision of just, sustainable, community-driven data stewardship for the future.

We Have a Vision

After extended wordsmithing by committee across continents and seasons we agreed on wording for the partnership’s vision statement:

Data Together empowers people to create a decentralized civic layer for the web, leveraging community, trust, and shared interest to steward data they care about.

We’re proud of this statement, which clearly articulates our shared project and hints at some of our values:

  • The web is built on shared protocols and practices. The last several years have shown us how desperately we need new “civic layers” for the web—shared ethical commitments that enhance the Web’s emancipatory potential while restraining its most egregious dangers. We strongly believe the Data Together partnership can help our individual partners, and others, envision and perhaps enact these layers.
  • We believe that communities are key this conversation. Any successful strategy needs to mobilize and empower communities as much as individuals.
  • Many players in the distributed web conversation start from an assumption of trustlessness. We believe that we should mobilize trust first where it can be found, and work to enhance rather than diminish relations of trust and mutual reliance.
  • In order to engaged with re-imagining data infrastructures we need to draw on emerging models of decentralized data stewardship and the civic commons to define meaningful relationships to data and information.
  • A recognition that anything we do has to include the voices of those typically sidelined from the conversation: marginalized communities, non-technical folks, those in the Global South or those lacking financial resources.

We also recognize that our current roadmap does not yet do enough to prioritize this last value.

We Can Make Decisions

Based on extended discussion (but not decisions), we have adopted our first governance structure with a set of rules and principles to guide our decision-making! We’re excited that this will allow us to move forward on bigger projects over the next year.  

We Have Plans

After a lengthy decision of all the many things we want to do together, we decided on some top priorities for the next year. We’re excited to move forward on them right away:

  1. Adopt shared vision and values to anchor our mission.
  2. Maintain a regular reading group on themes related to reconceiving data stewardship, the internet, and our technologies.
  3. Articulate why a civic layer and Data Together, informed by our values, is vital at this moment.
  4. Update our online presence to reflect this mission and renewed purpose with ways that people can get involved.

Our 2018 Annual Meeting has allowed us to articulate our vision, decision-making structure, and goals more clearly than ever before. We look forward to working together to realize our plans over the year ahead. Thanks again to the TRU for their support!