Unions should master “medium data” before tackling “big data”

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According to IBM, humanity creates around 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day, sourced from the cameras, sensors, bank transactions, photo uploads, social media shares, smartphone GPS signals and more.

This is “big data”. The vast amount of information that many organisations can now access and try to make sense of.

For unions, big data presents a growing opportunity and enormous potential. However, I suggest that before tackling “big data”, unions must first master “medium data”.

The main difference is that “big data” is the search for meaning amidst the galaxy of databases, comprising untold numbers of records; whereas “medium data” is the act of giving structured meaning to the more limited set of data points that are held by the union (or other organisation). Medium data at some level is about the basics of the union: what do you do, who are your members, and what is happening in your union and your union’s industries.

While this may seem like a low bar, it is something that I see unions still coming to grips with. The challenge is gathering, organising and using the basic data in a more effective, impactful way.

Most unions have a membership database, but the primary purpose of that database is to monitor financiality of members. Other important information about members is kept elsewhere: how active they are, their various contacts with the union, case history, issues of concern or attendance at union events. These important data points are often kept in secondary databases, such as excel spreadsheets or other programs.

Unifying all the important databases into a single database — with a “single source of truth” — is a massive challenge for unions, largely due to the cost of investing in a cutting edge information system, or due to the organisational challenge involved in scoping, designing, building and implementing such a system.

Additionally, because unions are all different, covering different industries and workplaces, with different structures and cultures, there’s no “union movement standard” available.

Finally, there is often a disconnect between the different union organisational units driving decisions. Organisers may not be involved in activities traditionally considered the purvue of IT staff, finance staff or membership staff.

The consequences of the challenges of tackling “medium data” are real. As the issues and workplaces that unions operate in become more complex, organisers, industrial officers and union leaders increasingly rely on good quality, up-to-date information. Who are the delegates? What are the most common workplace issues in this shop? What other approaches have been tried with this industrial issue? What training needs to these delegates have? Who here has been a member of a union before, but is not now?

Quickly and accurately answering these questions — or being unable to answer them — can make tactical decisions difficult, and long-term planning even harder.

In my view, the challenge of “medium data” is one that must be addressed by union peak bodies. Developing union-movement standard benchmarks for databases, data collection and data analysis is something that peak bodies must start to consider. This is particularly essential for smaller affiliates who lack the resources to tackle it themselves. Peak bodies can assist with knowledge sharing, training and ensuring that unions aren’t ripped off by sharks.

Especially when major union-wide campaigns come around, such as during election time, it is also important that unions, as much as possible, have platforms that can talk to each other.

It is also worth emphasising that many of these issues are faced by other advocacy charities and non-profit organisations, many of which are membership based (although not as regulated as unions).

If unions can embrace a new approach to “medium data”, adopt new tools and platforms “medium data” could transform their organising, industrial servicing, and communications. Unions could radically increase their ability learn quickly. Better data could enable more and better collaboration among unions and other non-profits. And more effective unions will likely see an increase in membership.

Of course, unions cannot hope to magically reap the potential of “medium data” without some hard work. Here’s what union decision-makers need to keep in mind:

  1. Don’t panic. Unions may make unwise decisions about data because they worry about revealing “weaknesses” or because of legacy systems (e.g. an old, expensive and ineffective membership system). Remember that data is meant to complement intuition and stories, not replace them. Information should inform, not decide.
  2. Focus on what unions have in common. Ideally, the union movement should agree on — and then adopt — a set of basic standards for data. Every union may well be unique, but we should focus on what unites us, not what makes us different, in order to benefit from “medium data”. This means talking in the same language, using shared formats and common platforms. Peak bodies can lead in this regard.
  3. Default to openness. “Medium data” only works if we share. Many unions are wary of sharing information, and there are limits to sharing due to the Privacy Act. However, there are some things we can share, and if unions do, they will reap an immense insight and impact. There will always be data a union should not share — but we need to switch our default to sharing.

It’s time for unions to seriously face the challenge of data. This doesn’t require supercomputers or large teams of data scientists, or physicists with PhDs. It does require organised, unified databases that clearly help the union tell its story.

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