Alternative Data Futures: Cooperative Principles, Data Trusts, and the Digital Economy

Alternative Data Futures: A Living Syllabus


The Alternative Data Futures: Cooperative Principles, Data Trusts, and the Digital Economy Research Sprint was launched by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium in October 2021.[1] The Research Sprint model developed by Berkman and its collaborators is a highly intensive 4 to 9 week period of seminars and workshops led by subject matter experts on an overarching thematic area of focus related to technology, ethics, and policymaking. In general, participants are early-career academics or practitioners who are tasked with working in small groups to develop outputs (e.g. white papers, data visualizations, policy playbooks) related to a set of questions or challenges.



This syllabus and assorted materials were created for the Alternative Data Futures: Cooperative Principles, Data Trusts, and the Digital Economy Research Sprint, a project organized and run by the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University in collaboration with The New School’s Platform Cooperativism Consortium. Beginning in October 2021, the research sprint brought early scholars and practitioners from around the world together to study social, legal, and technological opportunities and challenges to community ownership of data and data governance approaches rooted in cooperative principles and practices. Visitors are invited and encouraged to explore the materials and use them.

Course Description


Around the world, a growing number of governments, businesses, and citizen collectives are turning toward data trusts, data cooperatives, and data collaboratives as possible answers for responsible, commons-oriented data management. A data trust is a legal entity that collects and manages personal information on behalf of its members. Although many questions about the functioning of data trusts are still under development, proponents argue cooperative approaches to data could offer users more privacy, democratic control over the use of their data, facilitate research and public interest innovation, among other potential benefits.

The Fall 2021 Research Sprint explored strategies for alternative forms of power, ownership, and control in the digital economy. Participants considered reconfiguring online platforms and services to allow for more democratic access, governance, ownership, and the use of data. A primary goal of the Sprint was to have participants work together in small groups to investigate research or policy questions in this space. Participants were not expected to create narrowly customized solutions or endorse specific approaches to the research or policy questions they pursued, and were given wide latitude to pursue research questions of their own design. The Sprint will required interdisciplinary collaboration and mutual learning with participants and experts from many disciplines and across the globe.

Learning Modules


On each of the module pages, you will find an introduction to the topic, some external resources to explore, and a recording of the presentation. Learners can explore these modules in sequence or just those that are most relevant.

Module Topic Framing Questions and Comments
1 Community Ownership for the Internet What are the pressing issues in the gig economy? What are the benefits and drawbacks of platform cooperatives? Should they aim to outcompete large tech companies? How can we create a democratically controlled Internet and collectively our own data?
2 Scaling Solidarity With Cooperatives Cooperatives are not just economic or financial institutions; they are also social institutions that reinforce (and scale) solidarity, education, dignity, and collective self-help. The values at the heart of co-ops are best reflected in the 7 principles that the International Cooperative Alliance formulated in 1996. They include voluntary and open membership, member economic participation, autonomy and independence from outside influence, continuous education, training and information for members, cooperation among cooperatives, concern for their communities. Not all forms of cooperatives equally contribute to these goals. For the purpose of this research sprint, we ask: Which forms of cooperatives best lend themselves to facilitate bottom-up participatory data governance?
3 Participatory, ‘Bottom-up’ Governance for Data Trusts/ Data Coops What might a 'bottom-up' data trust architecture look like that acknowledges the lessons from the history of cooperatives and the differences between various cooperative forms? To generate value for its members, data cooperatives may restrict or regulate the collection of data. Data revenue may be utilized to effect positive social change. 'Data cooperatives' can provide a bottom-up governing model that is reflective of local interests. Shared ownership of digital infrastructure can also become advantageous for the use of data to achieve shared goals.
4 Data Unions, Data Sovereignty, Data Coops N/A
5 Data Coops Case Study: Decentralized Blockchain For some, crypto networks and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) are the future of cooperatives. Crypto networks are decentralized organizations without a single point of authority that enforces hard-coded rules to foster trust among its members. All stakeholders in these networks are granted ownership via a local currency or "tokens" that reward actions that aid the network's success. Experimenting with internet-native governance projects also enables large-scale decision-making coordination across a large number of geographically dispersed members.
6 Data Coops as Citizen Organizations Community Cooperatives as a Model In the US, over 100 million people are members of credit unions. Professor Pentland imagines a future in which all of these members could control their data. He argues that community organizations that manage members' data must have fiduciary responsibilities to protect the sensitive information.
7 #TheNewCommonSense: Forging the Cooperative Digital Economy Presentations N/A



Week 1 - Foundational texts:

Week 2





This project is the culmination of many different people's support, insight, and work.

Program Contributors

Uma Rani Amara, Faiza Haupt, Laird Brown, Javier Creus, Ines Lopez, Vernon Dosch, Esteban Kelly, Jason Spicer, Sylvie Delacroix, Mark Surman, Francesca Bria, Anita Gurumurthy, Primavera De Filippi, Josh Tan, Isabella Ipollito, Alex Pentland (In order of participation.)

Participant Contributors

Ana Aguirre Uriz, Elettra Bietti, Adriane Clomax, Noah DiAntonio, Ander Etxeberria, Megan Kelleher, Morshed Mannan, Kelsie Nabben, Sadev Parikh, Novita Puspasari, Sadhana Sanjay, Janis Wong

Core Faculty and Staff Contributors

Valerie Gomez, Adam Nagy, Dr. Trebor Scholz, Dr. Elisabeth Sylvan


  1. "Research Sprint Explores Cooperative Approaches to Data Ownership and Governance". Berkman Klein Center. Berkman Klein Center. Retrieved December 17, 2021.