The pandemic has shown the centrality of digitization in the generation of resources, access to information and work, and the maintenance of relationships that allow societies to be resilient. However, only a few countries are able to reap the benefits of digitality for their citizens. The current hegemonic models of technological development and infrastructure, forms of technology, and data governance are managed by a few global actors, while excluding others. These forms of exclusion, reinforced by automation and datafication processes, prevent the realization of dignified livelihoods, especially for vulnerable and marginalized groups. The concentration and asymmetries of power through technologies and data also create new risks for democracy and the achievement of social justice goals.
These risks are evident in Latin American countries, which have been unable to harness the potential of the digital economy to generate jobs, reduce the knowledge and technology gap, and further common good. In specific national contexts, such as Mexico and Brazil, the weakness of state institutions and the authoritarian tendencies of governments have exacerbated conditions of social inequality. Furthermore, the absence of avant-garde and/or sovereign perspectives on technology and data governance have prevented these countries from developing their capacity to produce knowledge and well-being for the most vulnerable sectors of society.
As part of a study, we noted several issues hampering the development of alternative community models of data governance and stewardship in Mexico and Brazil. These include frameworks that promoted primarily market-oriented data cultures, insufficient regulatory frameworks, lack of data infrastructure and limited access to data, a wide skill gap, and, finally, institutional weaknesses.
Latin America has a long history of successful initiatives around the popular economy, solidarity economy, and common good. It was also a region that has pioneered the free software and free culture movements. Thus, a shift to a data commons culture must consider the history of the region itself.
To reverse this trend, it is necessary to formulate and implement data policies in ways that maximize social benefits. We need policies that promote community governance and data stewardship models, provide alternatives to market-driven models, and counterbalance the powers of totalitarian states that put democracies at risk through corruption, surveillance, or neglect, and violate citizens’ data and human rights.
Alternative Data Stewardship Models by Local Communities
The current state of the data economy in Mexico and Brazil is not inevitable. While resisting technological conglomerates and private logics of data mining and market is no mean feat, it is possible to build alternative circuits. Latin America has a long history of successful initiatives around the popular economy, solidarity economy, and common good. It was also a region that has pioneered the free software and free culture movements. Thus, a shift to a data commons culture must consider the history of the region itself.
This history prefigures possibilities – as today’s local constructs of what we want for tomorrow’s data culture – for community-driven data stewardship models related to research and social movements that struggle for non-aligned technologies and a fairer platform economy. These possibilities have been built by several local organizations, and present some dimensions necessary to strengthen alternative data cultures.
Governments need to develop a broad regulatory framework from a responsible data perspective that centres citizens and their rights.
They include, among other things, journalistic initiatives that use open data for social impact. Both countries have collectives that use geographic and cartographic perspectives for the common good. For instance, in Mexico, the collective, GeoComunes, works with communities by producing maps that strengthen the collective organization for defending the commons. The cartographies show strategies for capitalist appropriation of the territory and serve as tools for the organized defense of the population based on constructing collective and critical knowledge. In Brazil, the geo-journalism initiative, InfoAmazonia, uses maps to tell stories about the Amazon, linking databases and socio-environmental issues. Additionally, all their information is licensed under Creative Commons. Other media outlets, like Gênero e Número, in Brazil, produce data journalism based on gender and race issues.
Then, there are organizations that are engaged in building autonomous digital infrastructures. In Brazil, MariaLab is a feminist hacker collective that produces and circulates content on issues such as digital security, privacy, and self-care from feminist perspectives. Aiming to make technological spaces more diverse, the initiative proposes reappropriating the ways in which people develop and interact with digital infrastructures. The highlights of their production include booklets on feminist infrastructures, covering topics from female servers to autonomous networks, and a project that acts as a guide to learning and building community networks. For MariaLab, community networks allow local communities to debate and install their own network communication technologies.
Tech cooperatives, such as Mexico’s Tierra Común, play a critical role in offering prototypes for autonomous digital infrastructures. This workers’ cooperative offers training and other services in the areas of privacy, digital security, and data protection, all aimed at defending free software. Their objective is to promote a critical digital culture for communities and collectivities towards technological re-appropriation. Although based on different institutional designs, both MariaLab and Tierra Común fulfill the role of sharing knowledge about data infrastructures in relation to the data commons.
These initiatives, as examples of community-driven organizations around technology and culture, are the first step towards an ecosystem that fosters a just and equitable digital culture in relation to data commons. They offer lessons on a culture of data connected to, and built up from, the community and drawing from past commons-related social movements, especially free software movements in the region.
However, such initiatives cannot be created in a vacuum. Governments and civil society must consider the basic conditions necessary for the development of community-oriented data stewardship models and data governance structures geared towards the commons. Public policies to promote and develop these actions need to contemplate the following dimensions, drawing inspiration from existing, historical, and emerging, experiences.
First, governments need to develop a broad regulatory framework from a responsible data perspective that centers citizens and their rights. Furthermore, national and regional regulations need to guarantee mechanisms of authorship, accountability, and transparency aimed at maximizing the participation and benefits of communities, while minimizing damage and providing reparations.
Second, in addition to the availability and technical integrity of data, public policies must also guarantee data infrastructures and access to data, especially for marginalized people. Investment in public data infrastructures is necessary for digital sovereignty.
We need to learn from local initiatives that struggle for a data culture directed to the commons through the production and circulation of open knowledge and the construction of autonomous infrastructures.
Third, it is necessary to go beyond universal access and foster the development of educational policies associated with communitarian data cultures. Quality of access, critical data literacy, data autonomy, and public data commons are crucial. Policymakers need to resume open science projects that actually lead to the democratization of knowledge, access to data, and social justice. For instance, Latin America pioneered open science, long before the academic platforms (or scientific Big Tech) of the Global North tried to capture the meanings of this practice.
Each of these recommendations require the promotion of strong democratic institutions that protect human rights and data, with anti-corruption and anti-surveillance mechanisms in relation to the protection, privacy, and security of citizens’ data. The Brazilian General Data Protection – the Brazilian equivalent of GDPR – as specific legislation for the protection of citizens’ data, is a step in that direction. However, it is still incipient for the consolidation of a different data culture as legislation is one step towards changing people’s relationship with their personal data.
We need to learn from local initiatives that struggle for a data culture directed to the commons through the production and circulation of open knowledge and the construction of autonomous infrastructures. Sharing practices between different regions can help build networks around these initiatives. Public policies to strengthen such experiences and create other prefigurative practices, such as data cooperatives, are a step towards developing data sovereignty in Latin America.