Paying people for their data: an experiment in reciprocity

updated on 14 April 2021

This article explores the idea of data as labour in a regenerative economy.

Posting on social media costs time and attention and adds to big data that is valuable. Creating that data can be seen as a form of labour which raises questions around how it is valued. Will data as a form of labour struggle with exploitation? Or will we manage to transition into a more regenerative economy that values our attention as a resource and respects the data’s creator?

This article explores the ethics and potential of personal ownership of data and how Riposte is working towards paying contributors for their data. It is part of a series that introduces Riposte, a new social sharing and wellbeing app from New Zealand that uses data for collective wellbeing measurement. The other parts of the series focus on designing social media to be healthy and psychologically safe, aggregated analytics for collective wellbeing, using data for good as an alternative social media business model and our purpose and vision

Valuing data as labour, which future do we want?

“History won’t repeat itself, but chances are that it will rhyme”. In their 2018 book “Radical Markets”, Glen Weyl and Eric Posner sketch a possible future in which data is treated as a form of labour that has value because it forms the basis for training AI. Data would “rhyme” with labour in it’s struggle to be valued appropriately. This future includes the need for “data labour unions” that negotiate rates, control data quality, and even organise strikes. 

The relationship sketched here between humans and AI eerily reminds me of Yuval Noah Harari’s possible future in which homo sapiens are to homo deus what cattle are to homo sapiens - with homo deus running the show in an AI powered world. Insert homo sapiens as data labourers, barely scraping a living out of a jumble of photo identification, ad watching and occasional translation gigs.

Imagining this future with them, I can’t help but feel a bit frustrated. More than a century of human resource management has tried to keep people well enough to form a productive labour force within a system based on exploitation. That economic system (still capitalism) is arguably broken. Millennials reject corporate work culture. Stress and burnouts are higher than ever, even in Sweden. Consultants and environmentalists alike argue for transformational change. And yet the future of data sketched by Weyl and Posner is built on the assumption that extraction for private profit will be the dominant economic system and that exploitation will be the norm unless data labour unions step in. The work of Yuval and Weyl and Posner serve us best as wake up calls. It’s up to us humans collectively to figure out an economic system that is biased towards equity as opposed to inequality, and regeneration as opposed to exploitation. 


I suggest we do another thought experiment about the future of how data could be valued. Let’s keep the assumption that data and labour have parallels. What if labour and data were valued within a system that put the wellbeing of people and planet first? Isn’t that what we are really talking about when we wish for transformative change? For the natural environment, we have realised that sustainability isn’t going to cut it. We need regenerative practices to restore the planet back into a state in which it can thrive even with us humans on it. But what about our human resources? The way we work is no longer sustainable. How would a regenerative economy treat humans? How would it treat data as labour?

Paying people for their data: an experiment in reciprocity

Riposte is working towards a reciprocal model that pays contributors for their posts. We take a different stance than Weyl and Posner as to why and how people's data can and should be paid for. Data is valuable when it is authentic and relevant. However, the real value emerges when aggregated data is translated into meaningful and actionable knowledge that is disseminated to decision makers. This is what we do at Riposte. Currently, the monetary value generated through this work is being used to build the software and team that provide clients with aggregated analytics. In the future, part of that monetary value will go to the individuals that provide the data analysed. In the now, we give out spot prizes as a form of appreciation and reciprocity. Riposte wants to create a system where it’s a fair exchange - you contribute to the Riposte Analytics database and are paid for your contribution and participation. 

At Riposte, we believe that what people post is an extension of themselves, their energy, their spirit.

Even if we pay people for their data, it will still belong to them. The payment is not a transaction for the ownership of the data, it is an expression of gratitude and respect for the contributors time and reflection. At Riposte, we believe that what people post is an extension of themselves, their energy, their spirit. Posts are people's free expression of their high or low point of the day. That data is valuable because contributors take the time to reflect and share their experience, giving us insight into their wellbeing. That experience is theirs, therefore the data expressing it belongs to them.

Another way of looking at it is that posts are valuable because of the attention contributors pay to reflect and share their experiences. Currently, companies require that people pay in either money or attention, like when you either pay for Spotify premium or listen to ads. Attention is a scarce resource, therefore it has economic value. Currently, the model is that the value generated goes to the company capturing the attention, but what if the value would go to the person paying attention?

In an economic system biased towards wellbeing and regeneration, data on people’s wellbeing is valuable as it forms the basis for creating more wellbeing. Governments, schools, and workplaces can better serve their citizens, students, and employees if they have access to wellbeing data. The analytics team at Riposte add value to contributors’ wellbeing data by aggregating it to help detect commonalities and trends among particular groups. Generating and analysing that data is a service to organisations, that they pay for. We don’t know what currency we will collectively recognise in the future. We may be able to go beyond money, but that’s not clear yet, though we’re keen to hear your thoughts! (Send them through on info@riposte.app). For now, it’s still money, which is why Riposte aims to share the revenue from their wellbeing data with their contributors. 

About the author: Mariska van Gaalen is a Dutch-Kiwi who moved back to Aotearoa New Zealand after 26 years abroad. Her background is in sustainable development, mostly as a researcher and writer. She has settled in Tairāwhiti and is keen to work more locally supporting positive impact projects and ventures. She currently writes for Riposte, is learning how to grow oyster mushrooms zero waste, and does the occasional stint sanding houses. Mariska is also part of the crew at Tāiki E! Impact House, where Riposte is based.

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