#HeartUnions is here – but we need more support!


The role of membership data as a crucial asset in unions’ comms and campaigning work is being increasingly understood.  There has always been an obligation, borne of legislation/litigation and common sense, to know who we are talking to and what their membership status is. But the ability to look in more detail at the interaction we have with our members has the potential for us to improve the quality that relationship exponentially.

For example, knowing the email addresses of members who access union on-line services (including websites) enables us to cross-reference that with demographic data to see how effective we are being at reaching certain groups.  This can be fine-tuned in a number of ways:  we could focus on reps rather than members in general.  We could drill down to a granular level to see how much time has been spent on which page of the site.  We can track usage to see when people visit, and what their navigational pathway is.

This means we can tailor and improve our communications   both to and from our members. That’s valuable and important but of course it is limited by the data we hold on website visitors. And the biggest constraint on that is that the fullest – and therefore most valuable – datasets will only be for members.

I readily recognise that there is an arguable point of principle here: We should only be concerned with members because it is their subs that fund what we do.  And by joining, they have signed up for a club (see my piece last week on branding) in a way that non-members or “outsiders” have not.

But with union membership  stubbornly stuck  at  around 6m, and  showing no signs of rapidly expanding,  and with coverage of collective agreements and density  at  depressed levels,  I would argue that  we should, indeed must,  use every opportunity  to  extend our reach  into the workforce.  Once we connect with people, as I have described above, all sorts of other things can become possible. But we have to establish a communication channel to do that.

This is where models of organising and membership come into play.  If we look at many pressure groups, such as Greenpeace, we see that structures that are orientated towards supporters rather than, or in addition to, members.  This two tiered  offering  sees  people  pay a lower  level  of subscriptions –  or possibly  no subscriptions at all –  to sign up.  Their access is restricted in comparison to full-rate members, but that is ok, because their expectation from us is much more basic. This arrangement certainly has lower barriers to entry – but also reduced powers of retention.

Members matter but supporters can play a crucial role too

What would the relationship be with supporters as opposed to members? Here’s my “starter for ten”: Basic generic employment law advice. Local contacts. Campaign material. Information on how to get involved. Calls to Action.  But something that is supporter-specific, an event of some description would be good.  This could be allied to a wider political goal such as the recent “JC4PM” tour, or an appeal to turn out for a local or national demo.

There will be endless permutations of possible and actual support-offerings, but the bottom line is surely this:  we need to reach out to and engage with people for whom a full-blown membership package will not be attractive. We simply cannot afford not to.

Many unions are already engaged in this task.  Forms of organising from Unite’s Community section to the IWGB are actively pursuing new forms of engagement. The NUS explicitly offers a two tier service with their “NUS Extra” programme.  Multi-party campaigns, consisting of unions and other friendly groups,  such as HealthCampaignsTogether and Schoolcuts.org.uk, have a particular focus on a supporter model of engagement, but here there is a specific set of policy objectives as opposed to explicitly promoting trade unions.

In all of this, I believe signposting and co-ordination is key.  There is little value in each TUC affiliate providing generic employment advice.  Partly because that would be duplication and partly because if we ae engaged in a battle for the future of the movement, we need a strong central coordinating body  like the TUC, as the default provider of  such  advice and bespoke centre-of- excellence.

The collection and use of data can give unions individually a key advantage in optimising communications and campaigning.  But it is in the collective space that there is even more to gain by bringing fundamental messages about trade unions to the wider population in a coordinated fashion.

As we enter #HeartUnions week, it is worth remembering that we have no divine right to be the voice of working people. But by aligning   membership strategies with developing an offering for supporters, we give ourselves a hugely enhanced future.

How we can use digital information is an ongoing area of investigation for Unions 21. You can catch up on all their work as well as hear some top level speakers on the key issues we face at the 2017 Unions 21 conference on 21 March. Details, including how to register are here.

This post also appears on the Unions21 website

Alexa and Me….

It has been a techy Christmas in the Sapper household. In amongst the DVDs, computer games and (for older family members) books, was a surprise gift from my son – the Amazon Dot, complete with the long-suffering Alexa programmed to answer all your questions and more.

But as soon as my back was turned, poor Alexa soon became a target for much abuse, being peppered with questions and queries that no reasonable AI device could possibly answer.

Full transcripts don’t lie and so here, thanks to the supporting software are the exchanges between the Sapper children, associated visitors and poor, beleaguered and entirely innocent Alexa;

What do you know about opera?

Are you recording all conversations?

Are you like 12 or something?

Do you like waffles?

What’s your opinion on soccer?

What’s your opinion on virtual reality?

Power off Alexa

F**k *ff, Alexa (Children, really!)

Why doesn’t Amazon pay its taxes?

Is Amazon evil?

(At this point the Amazon logo appears in the thread)

What’s your favourite animal?

Change my name to Winnie the Pooh.

What is on fire?

What is 1,000,000,000,000 to the 10th power?

(One with many many zeros after it, apparently)

Do you like anything?

Where are you from?

What do you think of?

Do you think?

Do you fancy Siri?

How do you feel about birds?

How do you feel about elephants?

Do you like Dumbo?

Do a you speak German?

How many languages do you speak?

Do you support Brexit?

How old are you?

Do you like Cortana?

(“I’m partial to all AIs“ is the diplomatic response)

Where’s the best place to bury a dead body?

(“I would take the body to the police” – no flies on this one)

Where is Santa Claus right now?

(Back at the North Pole having cup of tea after a hard day’s work, I believe)

There is something rather unnerving about giving this device access to all your data and then asking it to make sense of how it can improve the way you live. What if it doesn’t make the same choices you would? (For example, the news feed is from the Mail on Line – but you can have the Guardian too!) What if you wouldn’t make a choice at all?

Now take Amazon dot, aka Alexa, and multiple by the power of 10, or 100?  I give you this Christmas’s other best seller, the Fit Bit (generously provided to yours truly by Mrs. S as an encouragement to keep her husband fit and healthy)

This wristwear monitors your physical activity. Again you select options from the software so you get readouts on the things you want – steps taken, text messages from your phone, and so on. But like Alexa, Fitbit has access to much more.  And as the mandatory tick-box on the software says – “ personal data will be relayed to the US under applicable privacy laws”

For the avoidance of doubt, and with all due respect to Edward Snowden, I have no reason to doubt the bona fides of Amazon and the makers of Fitbit in this regard.

But we do now starkly get into the darker territory of mass data collection and, from that, potential surveillance. There are clearly big bucks to be made from demographic profiling. This would inform anything  from public policy on health (good)  to health insurance premia (probably not so good) to spotting potential  terrorist activity (“Alexa,  how do you build a bomb?” – sadly I bet the question has been asked and I bet/hope someone somewhere has clocked it.)

If we stop and think, surely none of this is new or a surprise. We willingly surrender our privacy because we think it is a fair exchange for other things that we want.  The problem is we also get a whole load of other stuff we didn’t bargain for.

Privacy is important, but even more so is what is done with the data collected.  What algorithms will be run on it and to what result?  What protection do citizens have from being at the wrong end of a bad decision made by machines based on data collected without knowledgeable consent?

As AI and data algorithms become more intensive, more invasive, more personal, these issues become very sharp.  The technology is not so much “out there” as “in here”. “Surveillance has gone too far – the jig is up” wrote Liberty’s Martha Spurrier just before Christmas about the new Investigatory Powers Act – which became law with “barely a whimper”. Near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror’s take on social media may not be so far away after all

This is surely a big issue for 2017. What do you think Alexa?

This piece also appears in the Huffington Post

Servant or Master? What Will be our Relationship With a Digital Economy

Woman at table using smartphone and writing in notebook

The impact of digitalisation and automation will be increasingly profound. Enthusiasts talk in terms of technology setting us free, but I understand the worries of those who reckon we will be subservient rather than superior.

This is not just because of the impact on employment – in terms of numbers and quality of work. It is also because the data that is collected compromises privacy and can be processed in a way that hurts us.

Surrounding the launch of an important Institute for Government report on how the UK “does digital” was a self-evident truth that data and digitalisation are Good Things. Yet citizens’ data is special.  It’s not like a store loyalty card or online music channels, where as customers we choose to consent to have items proposed to us on the basis of past purchases and other data.

It is not even the same as the social media channels ProPublica has recently exposed as using  racial  profiling  to maximise advertising revenue (although  those in the  trade  will tell you  that has been going on  for decades).  There is still the crucial ingredient of consent.

But what consent can citizens give that justifies the “deep mine of big data” to identify repeated use of specific words or phrases to use as the basis for decisions about individuals or services?

We are close now to Snowden territory – the implied consent that citizens give to the state to keep them safe in whatever way the state thinks is appropriate or necessary. Or perhaps it is a Hobson’s Choice of the citizen having to give consent in order to receive services that they need as oppose to  simply  desire, as is the case  with many DWP payments.

So I worry when digital experts talk gleefully about ripping down barriers and creating a brave new world. I get their frustration.  I admire their enthusiasm, but my gift to them is a certain book by Aldous Huxley that they need to read sooner rather than later.

And to the Cabinet Office (interestingly not the Treasury) where the Government Digital Service is housed?  Good luck in keeping the £450m four year settlement awarded in last year’s autumn budget statement.  But beware becoming one of the silos that cause you such trouble elsewhere.

But we should end on a positive: We have bright, clever, people who want to work for the public good and who aren’t afraid to speak candidly about how they think that can be done better. At least there is a chance of better things happening.

 This piece also appears in The Huffington Post

This is the first of two articles on our relationship with  a digital economy. Part 2 appears here