Local-first principles for data ownership
Decentralisation is not just a cool idea – for some, it’s necessary to protect critical information and ensure long-term access to data. The non-profit Digital Democracy works in solidarity with marginalised communities to use technology to defend their rights. They are innovators of decentralised knowledge commons, using principles called ‘local-first’ technology. Their flagship product MAPEO is an open-source toolkit designed in partnership with Indigenous communities for documenting human rights abuses linked with geographic information. MAPEO is currently deployed in 12 rural project areas across Guyana, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Vietnam and Peru, involving over 100 local communities, many of whom do not have access to the internet. Front-line communities that use MAPEO collect very sensitive data that needs to be held securely and privately. Stories from Indigenous elders, locations of sacred sites and herbal medicines, hunting paths and photos of illegal mining – these are all sensitive pieces of knowledge that we don’t want to get into the wrong hands.
Data in MAPEO is a common-pool resource, and communities decide which devices get access to synchronise, edit and add to their local knowledge map. When a new project is created, an encryption key is generated for that group. When a user is ready to share the data to another device, MAPEO synchronises only with others that also have access to this shared secret key. The point here is consent over which devices have access to the community’s data over the peer-to-peer network. This creates a closed group of devices participating in a web of commons.
Empowered with this information, communities then leverage it in legal, advocacy and campaign work to hold human rights offenders to account, engage in development policy decisions and effectively manage their resources. For example, in Ecuador, the Indigenous Waorani people won a landmark legal challenge over oil concessions illegally created over their territory without consultation, enabling them to protect half a million acres of their territory.
On the surface, this use case seems strikingly different than that of librarians in Silicon Valley’s Stanford University. However, both are ensuring resilience of critical information in the face of uncertainty – whether that is unforgiving rural rainforest weather conditions or earthquakes – and managing that data using a socially defined governance structure that exists outside of the technology itself.