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Who is building and innovating alternatives to the dominant approaches of the ‘data economy’ and what do they need to succeed? Mozilla’s Data Futures Lab launched this month to answer these questions (and more) through research, convenings and investments in prototypes that center data as a potential source of empowerment for justice and equity and seek to challenge the dominant paradigms that have been normalized through big tech and venture capital.

Today, I’m excited to announce the latest in a series of research papers for the Data Futures Lab by Mozilla Insights that maps and explains a growing ecosystem for what we call ‘alternative data governance’ initiatives. It’s called “What helps? Understanding Needs and the Ecosystem for Support” and was written by Katya Abazajian with Bex Hong Hurwitz as a lead contributor among dozens of Mozilla staff, fellows and allies who helped review.

For this research, we assembled a library of 114 “supporting entities'' who encourage innovation through funding, research, community building and more. To better understand the needs of the field, we also conducted more than 20 interviews with people who either represent supporting entities or are “builders'' of initiatives themselves. We asked how they see themselves, the field, and the needs of who they intend to serve.

The paper concludes with a series of recommendations for what the Data Futures Lab should do to support the field. Here are the three main takeaways:

  • That the Lab should support the development of rules and practices for safe experimentation with data to minimize risk for harm.
  • That it should fund those who build “shared infrastructure” (like data schemas, open tech infrastructure, open privacy tools, legal templates) to support an open innovation environment.
  • That indigenous-owned and local initiatives should be kept in focus to gain deeper insights on what diverse perspectives bring to bear on data futures.

We cannot emphasize enough how new this field is and how emergent many concepts and terms like data trusts, data cooperatives or data stewardship still are. Indeed, many people interviewed for this research said they wish for stronger language to define their own work, more connections with others, and support from allies navigating sustainability challenges ahead.

Considering the vast support systems that exist for extractive data governance models buoyed by venture capital funds, business accelerators and laws that have adapted in their favor, we urgently need to build up and invest in an ecosystem capable of generating robust counter-propositions.

Our previous research, published as a collection called Data for Empowerment, has explored what alternative approaches to data governance in literature, who is building them in practice (and where in the world) and what could go wrong despite the best intentions. For greater clarity, at least around our own use of terms, we are also publishing a new glossary today.

Aside from informing the work of the Data Futures Lab, our hope is that we may also offer an entry point for builders who are new to these topics and wish to engage with the ideas. If you know someone who is eager to explore alternatives, please tell them about the Lab. There is much to debate and prototype, and we need people to approach this from many angles.

This is a collaborative and ongoing research process and we encourage you to contact Mozilla’s Insights team if you have feedback or wish to see your own initiative added to our database.