2011 Year in Review
Copied here is a 2011 Year in Review report to the Data Commons Cooperative Steering Committee.
The Data Commons Membership, represented in the Steering Committee, was stable in 2011. Active, volunteering members increased from 6 to 7 organizations with the addition in April of the Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation. The organizations are listed as "founding members" in the draft bylaws are:
- Canadian Worker Co-operative Federation
- Cooperative Development Institute
- Grassroots Economic Organizing
- National Cooperative Business Association
- North American Students of Cooperation
- U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives
A membership drive is anticipated to be an important next step. Relationships with 19 likely Data Sharing members were established during our Spring market survey. Additionally we established or continued relationships with 6 grassroots groups using our directory software that would be targets for membership if there was a zero cost option.
An obstacle to the membership drive has been the challenge of determining a feasible and affordable membership cost. The Steering Committee has articulated a range of software development, some of it quite costly, but has also desired membership costs to be low or zero, lower than basic administrative costs. While the promise of interesting tools at low costs may bring members in, the organization has yet to show how membership growth can meet the expenses that come with its own goals.
The Steering Committee met monthly in 2011, and organized one 2-day retreat. As the leadership of the organization, the committee has excellent rapport and trust, and has been able to maintain focus despite some continued uncertainties about the launch and growth of the cooperative. It is expected that members will need to play a greater "working" role during a membership campaign, to speak as peers to other data-sharing organizations about the benefits of shared services.
Some major discussions were held, and decisions made, during the year, including:
- Hiring a paid coordinator
- Defining key features and tools for software development
- Defining membership classes and organizational form
- Defining open source licensing options that meet member and movement needs
- Clarifying ethical issues around "opting out" information gathering processes
- Defining a membership acceptance process and board elections process
- Drafting plain language bylaws for an attorney to adapt into legal language
- Working toward a business plan that balances feasibility and affordability
The Operations Team of 3 volunteers and 2 part-time paid workers (Coordinator and CDI support staff) has been stable in 2011. Operations is responsible to bring questions and proposals to the Steering Committee, and to implement their desires, as well as to keep everyday organizational matters in order.
The Operations Team met roughly every two weeks during the year, in addition to the coordinator’s and CDI staff’s labor, which combined at roughly 0.3 FTE. The team almost never discussed expanding to include new people, but like any volunteer-dependent endeavor, should keep open the possibility of including new people in its work in 2012.
The Operations Teams' major projects during the year included:
- Regular bug reporting for find.coop
- Facilitating the use of our directory software for NCBA's why.coop
- Launching a market survey to Data Sharing Organizations
- Clarifying options for data licensing, including questions of open distribution and the limiting of commercial uses
- Addressing organizational flow from client through operations to tech team
- Creating an "data trust" intake system for newly shared data
- Establishing or continuing relationships with organizations like Cooperative Maine, SLICE, SolidarityNYC, Austin Cooperative Directory, University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives, Ohio Employee Ownership Center, Cultivate.coop, and the New Economy Mapping Group.
- Addressing challenges to categorization and tagging in database structure
- Instigating tech team meetings and a tech recruiting campaign
- Structuring opt-in and opt-out relationships in data intake process
- Creating descriptive specs for the tools and features defined by the steering committees
- Drafting financial projections based on estimated tech costs and membership income
- Creating and maintaining outreach materials, including an outreach website, printed outreach materials, and social media feeds
- Seeking grant income to continue non-member funding in 2012
The pool of available tech workers who have been involved in the project is known at the Tech Team, though participants engage in the Data Commons more autonomously than as a team. There are 4 active Tech Team members with some orbiting interest from others. Tech Team met infrequently during the year - once formally, once at a conference, and once in facilitating the bid for the why.coop site.
While there was paid work in setting up why.coop, and in creating some new features for Cooperative Maine, tech work was largely volunteer work. The Data Commons emerged as a successful volunteer effort but given current feature and tool desires it would greatly increase capacity to be able to offer regular paid work. Paid tech work would increase programming capacity, but it would also likely engender more regular meetings and feedback on the costs, both of which would benefit the organizational health.
In the fall a recruiting campaign began to try to find more tech workers as volunteers, with the possibility of later paid work. There have around 5 inquiries, some from overseas, but none have been successfully integrated into the tech pool. This recruiting work should continue in 2012.
Some of the Tech Team's projects during 2011 included:
- Maintaining and refining find.coop and the directory software, and overseeing a doubling in find.coop traffic over the year.
- Setting up database exports to pdf from find.coop for customized publishing
- Creating new data intake processes for importing and merging member information
- Built out infrastructure for leaner data intake process
- Creating authority structures for entries and member email notifications
- Continuing to develop the Coopy distributed revision control system
- Exploring collaborations including conversations with hOurWorld, CooperativesUK, and others
- Engaging with with Creative Commons and ODBL organizers on licensing questions
- Scraping and importing new data from Cooperative Maine, USFWC, SolidarityNYC, the Austin Coopertives Directory, and CWCF
- Exploring a mobile platform fed by find.coop data
- Beginning specs for new find.coop visual and user interface
The Data Commons Cooperative has some very valuable assets, including its well-esteemed member organizations, goodwill from committed volunteers, a modest but meaningful grant funding history, and wide curiosity from the cooperative and solidarity economy community. A significant portion of this energy is based on the anticipation of future feature developments that will offer member and movement benefits. It will be important to make steady progress toward those benefits, even in small ways, to maintain engagement and increase members and volunteers that the cooperative currently depends on. In that sense it will be important to balance visionary goals with smaller feasible goals and be sure to reach milestones that can be trumpeted to reinforce goodwill and member participation.
A growth in membership will be essential in order to raise money for feature development. There are currently obstacles to the growth of membership in deciding what a feasible and affordable membership fee will be, and this balance will need to be found. With the influx of new members, imagined in some projections as taking the organization from 7 to 50 members in 2012, there will also be work in adapting to a new culture. The current steering committee is accustomed to a certain pace and capacity that may be shaken by an influx of many new members.
Tech capacity is lower than it needs to be to meet the members' desires, and this will need to be addressed. Capacity is low on several fronts - the Tech Team's participants are low, the paid hours available are low, and the organizational systems of tech as a team are low. Several responses have been floated. One is to recruit more volunteers from the cooperative community who can see the benefit of the tools as key movement infrastructure. Another is to recruit from outside the cooperative community, who can see the benefits of our software for their own purposes, and from whose work we can glean the benefits of improved open source software. A third response is the idea of paying tech workers more, in particular paying a coordinator to both program and organize volunteer programmers. Lastly, the idea of creating a for-profit cooperative firm, or contracting our development energy within an existing firm has been floated. This imagined firm would find pathways for feasibility that are outside of the membership's vision.
For now these future goals - reaching regular milestones, increasing membership, and increasing tech capacity - are all in motion in some way. It would benefit the cooperative to be strategic about them in the coming year.