This brief examines failure modes for data stewardship initiatives. It was commissioned as a "red team" brief by Mozilla Insights, to help Mozilla and its partners improve their strategic planning, and determine how to support the data stewardship field.

The heart of this brief is a series of speculative narratives: stories about hypothetical future projects that have failed, and why. Although this brief looks at the data stewardship field with a critical eye, these stories are not destinies. While no single document can comprehensively capture all of the ways a data stewardship initiative might fail, this brief succeeds if it helps spark the imagination, and prompt thoughtful approaches to mitigating the harm to people that failure can cause.

True to the red team form, this brief was drafted in isolation from the rest of the research outlined here, and does not represent the opinions or positions of Mozilla or any of its staff, affiliates, or partners. The stories are fictional, and should not be read as descriptions of any current or past initiatives. Mistakes and omissions are my own.

How this brief is organized

In commissioning this brief, Mozilla Insights defined success for their data stewardship strategy as:

We must reimagine new models of managing data in the public interest; reconstitute collaborative spaces of design, development and deployment of new methods of data stewardship so they are more inclusive; and ultimately we must rebalance the power dynamics of our digitized worlds with counterweights.

This brief’s narratives are organized into three failure parts; inversions of Mozilla’s provided success measures:

  1. Inertia. New norms, initiatives, and technologies fail to take root, or fail to give individuals and communities sufficient protection or agency.
  2. Exclusion. Data and technology projects continue to exclude, discriminate, and marginalize. New data governance models create new barriers to meaningful participation, or reinforce old barriers.
  3. Entrenchment. Power asymmetries persist and grow worse. Entrenched interests co-opt, outcompete, or crush alternative models.

Each part contains several speculative failure narratives, matched with general descriptions of the failure implicated. Each part concludes with links to further reading that help illuminate the challenges that data stewardship initiatives face.

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Part I: Inertia