How the ODI is helping Co-op Digital put data at the centre of the organisation

We recently invited groups of data experts into Co-op Digital to look at and challenge our data plans. One of these groups was the Open Data Institute (ODI). This guest post explains their thoughts on Co-op’s data work so far, and what we could be doing better.

At the Open Data Institute we work across the data spectrum helping people understand how access to data can make things better. Our dedication to making data more open and accessible puts us in a good position to advise Co-op Digital’s data team, who are aiming to improve transparency around how and why their customer data is used.

The Co-op is already getting lots right

We think there are 3 areas where Co-op Digital is already making excellent progress.

1.They recognise that data is an important asset

Data is becoming vital infrastructure for our society: just like roads help us navigate to a destination, data helps us navigate to a decision. Co-op already treats data as an asset and uses it to inform decisions. Co-op Digital has structured its data team so it doesn’t just include the standards and technical infrastructure that ensure people can access data, but also the governance, policies and guidance that ensures data is used in ethical ways.

2.They are building trust in their data

Co-op Digital have said that they want to be ‘trusted with data’. We’re pleased with this approach because we believe that ethics should be at the centre of any organisation’s work in this area. We’d like to see Co-op go further in using our data ethics canvas in their new data projects. The more people that use it and improve it, the better it will get for everyone.

3.They are working in the open

When the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) comes into force next year, its rules on personal data will have far-reaching repercussions. It’s driving organisations to think about how they collect and manage this data. Being open is an important part of GDPR, and Co-op are talking about what it means and how its colleagues can better understand the new rules. We think GDPR is a good opportunity to build trust and loyalty, so we are pleased Co-op Digital contributed to our recent research on this subject.

Where we think Co-op can improve

There were areas we’d like to see Co-op Digital work more on, and we gave the team 3 recommendations.

1.Create data infrastructure for members and customers, not just colleagues

Data can be used to drive open innovation. It can help large organisations engage with startups to create innovative products and it can help a sector collaborate to solve social issues and create new opportunities. We’d like to see Co-op exploring how it could collaborate with others to find innovative uses for its data – not just other organisations but startups, civil society groups, members and customers. Good use of data infrastructure can empower entire communities.

2.Push for data literacy across the organisation

People need a variety of skills in order to understand how to effectively use data. The ODI has invested in training and improving data literacy and we’ve created a skills framework to help develop data professionals.

But we don’t need organisations full of data scientists – everyone in a modern organisation has a role in collecting, managing and using data. At Co-op Digital, this means building the culture and capabilities for all teams to run analysis and reporting to help them make informed decisions.

3.Lead the way on creating a more open approach

We think it’s important to build peer networks to help people share their experience and to work together to solve problems. We believe the Co-op has an opportunity to take forward not just their own businesses, but to offer insight and thought-leadership on data to the UK’s co-operative network and the retail sector. In doing this, the Co-op can make open data the default option and open the door for more creativity and innovation.

The Co-op has a chance to use data to make a difference

By working with its members, Co-op can share responsibility in managing data assets with those who are directly invested in its success. Shared stewardship of these assets, like store locations and opening times, helps to build a trusted relationship with members.

The Co-op already provides financial support to help members solve problems in their local community, particularly with the 1% cause contribution from membership. We were pleased to see data on this published under an open licence recently, using a community standard. But Co-op could also support its members in helping them be more data-informed and in understanding how data can be used to solve local challenges: this is all part of data literacy.

There’s already great work happening across the UK where local communities are using data to map wheelchair accessibility and highlight housing issues. We’d love to see the Co-op work with its members to create more of these initiatives. It’d help cement its position as a trusted authority on the ethical use of data.

We’re looking forward to seeing what the Co-op Data team does next – and we’ll be happy to help them meet their ambitions for being trusted with data to do amazing things.

Leigh Dodds, Data Infrastructure Programme lead, ODI
Amanda Smith, Account Manager, ODI
David Beardmore, Commercial Director, ODI

The Provenance alpha: building trust from transparency

The Co-op is committed to being radically transparent. A decade ahead of the government’s traffic light system, we campaigned for food and nutrition labelling that’s clear and easy to understand.

Being transparent still matters. But how do we make sure the Co-op stays ahead of the curve when it comes to building trust from transparency in the digital age?

For the past 12 weeks, my team has been working on a proof of concept we called the Provenance alpha. Provenance is a start-up that uses blockchain technology to make supply chains more transparent. A blockchain is a public, tamper-proof record of transactions which is maintained and verified by a network of co-operating computers (rather than by a central authority like a bank).

The Provenance alpha was a joint effort between Co-op Digital and Provenance to see if we could use their technology without having to add extra steps to our supply chain.

Starting with gladioli

Our small team (myself, interaction designer Jack, and the team from Provenance) tracked gladioli through our supply chain, from source to shelf. We learnt a lot in the process. We worked on this project in the same way that we develop software – by building something doable as a basis for scaling up.

We looked at the supply chains of 4 different products to begin with but we picked gladioli because they’re a relatively neutral product but still perishable. Gladioli are farmed locally in the UK and move from source to shelf in 2 to 5 days. Their supply chain has enough steps to be interesting, but is small enough for a proof of concept.

Working with what’s already there

We wanted to move quickly, which meant steering clear of changing existing processes in the supply chain. Adding any new technology for tracking and verification purposes would be expensive to scale, so we avoided doing that. To keep us on track, we decided on some principles for our work. 

  1. Tracking should be as close to real time as possible.
  2. No manipulation of existing supply chain processes.
  3. Use existing systems and verifiable data.

We connected to existing systems such as our suppliers’ sales and invoice software and our warehouse management system at our depot. This let us collect data about where the flowers had come from and where they’d go next. It also let us track unique batches in real time.

Links in the chain

All the suppliers in the supply chain gave us access to systems that we could extract data from. This data included evidence of environmental and welfare standards. We then linked these together using Provenance’s software to verify the batch of gladioli at each step in the chain.
image of 4 phone screens showing what the Provenance app looks like at various stages of the gladiolo supply chain as well as data collected along the way

We started off by meeting with the gladioli farmer, Matthew Naylor to find the number of flowers cropped in the field each day. This information is usually recorded on paper, however Matthew used his smartphone to log the daily cropping figures with the Provenance system.

Naylor shows the Provenance software on his phone to the team

Next, we met with our flower supplier, JZ Flowers. They supply the Co-op with British gladioli and work with Matthew and the Co-op’s flowers product manager, Kathryn Camps, to develop our flower range. The information we collected about the production process is in the Provenance app. At this point we used order, sales and invoicing data to verify the batches that were sent to our depot. Then, at the depot we used our warehouse management systems to track the gladioli batches through to the store shelf at the Archway Co-op.

photo of gladioli in Co-op Archway store with hand holding a phone with Provenance app in front of the bunch

Thinking about data

Our progress has given us the confidence that, despite the many challenges of scaling, this idea is something that’s worth looking into further. It’s also made us think about the wealth of data we could collect. It could be possible to collect information on:

  • nutrition
  • allergens
  • ingredients
  • origin and food miles
  • sustainability information, for example CO2 emissions
  • welfare
  • price per unit

All of this data already exists but within ‘data silos’ across different systems, organisations and processes. We’re thinking about how we could collect it, standardise it and make it open and accessible to teams. If we could, it’d be possible for teams to build products and services that help our members and customers understand their food better. It would also help colleagues be more informed. Of course, this would be a huge project because the Co-op sells so many products and often introduces new ones.

Our small team completed the Provenance alpha quickly, partly because we didn’t interfere with existing systems. For a proof of concept, that was very important.

Our next step will be to find out if there’s a user need for a ‘digital right to know’ for our products. We’d be interested to hear if it’s something you’d care about, and to what extent. Leave a comment below.

Lawrence Kitson
Product manager

Emer Coleman joins CoopDigital

Emer Coleman joined CoopDigital this week.

A major part of our digital strategy is opening up to the digital economy, especially in the North-West. Working with our partners in the NOMA project, we’re creating shared spaces for digital collaboration and product delivery. Emer will be helping us to open this up for other businesses and organisations, as well as helping us find the best way for CoopDigital to support and be part of the growing digital community in the North West.

Emer has a huge amount of experience in leading digital transformation in both the public and private sector. She’s Chair of the Open Data Governance Board Ireland, and was part of the team that built  TransportAPI into a successful and sustainable transport data company. More recently Emer has been lecturing and writing on Techno Ethics and the need for new ethical approaches in the digital economy.  Her recent talk We Need To Talk About Ethics is worth taking a look at.

Picture of Emer Coleman
Emer Coleman

I know she’ll want to consult as widely as possible so that she can reflect the views of the community back to us here in CoopDigital. So get in touch with her. She’s not hard to find. She’s on the internet here and here @emercoleman

Welcome Emer.

Mike Bracken
Chief Digital Officer


The Co-op’s response to the Government consultation on Land Registry

The UK Government published a consultation in March on moving Land Registry operations to the private sector.

The Co-op believes that the UK economy will benefit from new services built on data. What the Government is proposing could make it harder to access and use data relating to land and property. In the future, the Co-op may want to build services for our members based on the data that Land Registry produces. We don’t want the Government to make it more difficult for organisations like ours to innovate.

We’re worried that the Government’s plans might make contracts and deals relating to property slower and more difficult. We know about this because Co-op Legal Services works with the Land Registry on behalf of members and customers. The Co-operative Group also deals with the Land Registry because we own lots of properties, including food stores and funeral homes.

The Co-op has sent in a response to the consultation to explain the reasons why we’re worried. We’re publishing it here in full so you can read it too.

Mike Bracken
Chief Digital Officer



Co-operative Group Response to the consultation on moving Land Registry operations to the private sector

This document is for public sharing and the Co-operative Group waives any rights to confidentiality. It contains answers to all the questions set out in the official response form.
Name:                      Richard Pennycook, CEO

Organisation:         The Co-operative Group

Address:                  1 Angel Square, Manchester, M60 0AG

Respondent Type: Large Business


The Co-operative Group, one of the world’s largest consumer co-operatives, with interests across food, funerals, insurance, electrical and legal services, has a clear purpose of championing a better way of doing business for you and your communities.  Owned by millions of UK consumers, The Co-operative Group operates a total of 3,750 trading outlets, with more than 70,000 colleagues and an annual turnover of £10 billion.

The Co-operative Group welcomes the opportunity to respond to this consultation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on options of moving Land Registry operations to the private sector.

As a business that has significant land and property interests, both leasehold and freehold, with thousands of its own land titles and also given our client-facing conveyancing work through Co-op Legal Services, The Co-operative Group has direct engagement with Land Registry and a clear interest in the efficiency and effectiveness of how this register of UK land and property assets operates.

As a member-owned business, we are very well aware of the importance of establishing and maintaining trust with our members.   Openness and honesty should underpin all that we do.  In turn, we welcome the principles set out by the Government in its Open Data White Paper of 2012, and believe that access to data, including sharing of data-sets held by government departments and agencies, has the potential to stimulate growth, ingenuity and innovation which are vital to the future success of the British economy in the 21st century.


  1. Do you agree that the ownership of the Registers should remain in government?

Co-operative Group Response – Yes


The Co-operative Group believes that an efficient, well-regulated Land Registry is essential to the health of British business, and ultimately to the state of our economy and the size of our national debt. This is for reasons both timeless and novel.We will start with the timeless argument.

The Co-operative Group believes that the role of the state is to provide certain guarantees of rights that no private organisation, even one as large as the Co-operative Group, can provide. Amongst the most fundamental of those rights is the right to property, a right that is as essential to businesses as it is to individuals. We believe that there is a reason why protection of property, as described in Magna Carta, have been legal foundations of Britain for nearly a thousand years.  A country that cannot protect the right to property is one that will not sustain healthy economic growth, or quality of life for its citizens.

The registers that the Land Registry holds in relation to property and land in the UK are an essential part of the largest asset market in the UK. Their centrality in underpinning contracts and commercial deals cannot be over-stated – they are one of the reasons that Britain is a good place to do business.

The Co-operative Group fears that either the removal from public ownership of this data  or an attempt to regulate it in private hands threatens to gum up the works of British market capitalism, and a threat to Britons’ property rights, and thus to the welfare of our economy and nation. We therefore oppose any wholesale privatisation of the Land Registry or its assets.

Furthermore, we make an argument that is based on novel concerns, unique to the 21st century.

The Co-operative Group believes that the future of the British economy will be heavily driven by organisations and individuals that can seize a competitive advantage based on their skills at extracting value from data.

Crucial to this process is the business of connecting datasets together. Often this connecting process requires using key public data sets as a form of glue, such as lists of addresses, land parcels, transport infrastructure or weather. The more difficult and expensive it is for innovators to gather these connective datasets, the less we can expect modern British data businesses to thrive.

We are concerned that the proposed privatisation of Land Registry, as currently envisaged, risks raising barriers to future innovation and business growth, instead of lowering them.  The proposals appear counter to the principles set out in the 2012 White Paper on Open Data. In particular, the potential emergence of a monopoly competitor, with unique access to the most valuable data, makes the flourishing of a wide, competitive market seem extremely unlikely. The Co-operative Group may wish to compete in these new data service markets, and we are worried that they will be closed to us (and others) before we can even start to establish new businesses and provide new value-added services for the benefit of our members.

  1. What steps should government take and what safeguards should it put in place to ensure continued and improved access to high-quality and reliable Land Registry data?

We agree that digital transformation within Land Registry has the potential to better serve the needs of its users, including individuals and organisations.  But we are not convinced that this will be met by a move into private ownership.

Instead, we believe a better a better course of action is:

  1. Rather than pressing ahead with options to move Land Registry operations to the private sector, we suggest a strategic review of Land Registry in the first instance. Such as strategic review should be conducted by a Review Board composed of a range of stakeholders from inside and outside of Government. The mission, legislative constraints and current capability and capacity of Land Registry should also be reviewed.


  1. We also believe that, given the strategic importance of data held by Land Registry, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) should be asked to review of how to shape an appropriate regulatory framework that ensures adequate consumer safeguards of data, and equality of access to data in a market economy.


  1. After the reports from both the Review Board and the CMA are published, develop a new plan for the mission and governance of the Land Registry, delivered if necessary through amended legislation.




  1. How could government use this opportunity to improve the quality and accessibility of data produced by Land Registry for all sectors of the economy?
  2. The Co-operative Group believes that all non-personal and non-secret government data should be Open Data, freely licensed for re-use, and correctly formatted to make such re-use economically viable for businesses and innovators in the UK. We would therefore recommend that Land Registry adapts its current policies of selling some parts of its data in favour of making all of its data freely available, shifting the operating costs to the registration side of the business.


  1. We believe that the digital transformation that has been seen at its best in certain parts of central government has not yet arrived at Land Registry. We encourage a comprehensive programme of replacing current digital systems with ones built in accordance with the government’s own Service Design Manual, both as a way of improving quality, and as a way of reducing operating costs.


  1. The Cabinet Office has recently been promoting the idea that modern government registers are the backbone of 21st century government infrastructure. We agree with this design philosophy.  We believe that there is an opportunity now to ensure that Land Registry is part of this infrastructure of modern data registers.


  1. On what basis should government manage the relationship with a privately owned Land Registry to ensure Land Registry meets, as far as is reasonable, the data quality and availability requirements of all stakeholders?


If the Government does pursue the course of privatising all or part of the Land Registry, it is vital that a full independent economic regulator is put in place, rather than simply a contractual relationship with government. A contract would only ensure that the Land Registry fulfilled the needs of the parent department, whereas the Land Registry impacts on the activities of the whole economy.

Even if such an independent economic regulator is set up, we believe that the quality of data within the register will suffer because the fundamental economic incentives of a monopoly provider will be to minimise expenditure on data quality whilst maximising the value extracted from it. No amount of regulation can change the basic logic behind the financial incentives for any monopoly data provider.

As a business with thousands of properties in our estate we fear that this lowered data quality will lead to more legal disputes over property related ambiguity, which could hit our profitability and slow down our ability to respond to market conditions. We encourage the government not to create this business risk for us, and other British businesses with large property estates.


  1. Do you agree that the suggested safeguards should be included in any model?

Co-operative Group response: Not sure

The safeguards set out in the consultation document are thin on detail.

If the government does proceed with moving the operations to the private sector, it is vital that detailed safeguards are published for consultation in advance of any ultimate decision.

  1. Are there any other safeguards that you think should be included?

X Yes                       ☐No                ☐ Not sure

As previously set out, we believe the ownership of the Registers should remain public. However, if the government does pursue options to move Land Registry options to the private sector, we consider vital the following safeguards:

  1. All prices for data and services sold by the NewCo must be set by the regulator, not by NewCo itself, which will have standard monopoly incentives to extract the entire consumer surplus.


  1. All calculations about the cost of data and the sale price of data must be revealed publicly, and ‘commercial confidentiality’ must be excluded as a reason to conceal data on the cost and price of sale calculations. The Government’s contractual relationship with any buyer must make this explicit prior to sale of the government assets.


  1. The terms of use and details of any contracts between ‘NewCo’ and data consumers must be approved by the regulator.


  1. The regulator must be given a clear mandate to reduce the year-on-year costs of data, in the manner of the original ‘RPI-X cost’ reduction model imposed by early UK telecoms regulators. Ideally the regulator would require the price of data publications to fall to zero within a short time-frame.


  1. The exact technical requirements for data published, and the quality-levels must be set by the regulator, not by NewCo. Furthermore, the regulator should have adequate resources to regularly audit the data to make sure that it is compliant with the regulations in both technical terms and quality terms.


  1. Given that technology and data processing is evolving very quickly, the regulator should publish, consult and impose a revised set of standards covering the nature of data gathered and published, the technical and quality standards for that data, and the price of data, at least every 12 months. A refresh once every ten years is no longer acceptable for modern data businesses.



  1. Do you agree with the preferred option?

Co-operative Group response: No

For more detail, see answer to question 8.


  1. What are your reasons for your answer to question 7?

We do not believe that it is possible for any government to establish a regulator powerful or skilled enough to prevent the owner of ‘NewCo’ from abusing the resources of the land registry in a way that is detrimental to either individuals or to other businesses in the UK, including The Co-operative Group.

In particular we agree with the Competition and Markets authority who argue that:

there is a significant risk that a vertically-integrated, privatised NewCo engaged in both the supply of monopoly data and the supply of commercial products (which use the monopoly data as an input) would not maintain or improve access to the monopoly data…rather, despite price-regulation on its monopoly activities, NewCo may degrade the terms of access to its monopoly data in order to weaken competition to its own commercial products.

Consequently we have two fears:

1.That the estate management of several thousand co-operative properties will become slower, more expensive and more prone to error and fraud.


2.That the pace of digital innovation in the UK will slow, and that The Co-operative Group will be kept out of markets where we could otherwise compete for the benefit of our members.

These fears will unfortunately more likely to be realised as:

  1. Data prices rise, as well as the cost of other land registry services
  2. The quality of data and services fall, as the new monopoly embarks of a process of extracting value


  1. Do you think an alternative model would be better and why?

Co-operative Group response: Yes

It is clear that the Land Registry does need digital modernisation, and an overhaul of its licensing regime.

We would endorse a review of Land Registry operating principles and management structures, to lead to a new charging model based on much greater provision of open data, and a model based on a comprehensive overhaul of internal processes, based on modern digital management techniques. All this can be done without privatising the core of the service.


  1. Are there other key costs and benefits that you think we might have missed?

Co-operative Group response: Yes

The current proposal does not make any attempt to model the overall impact on the UK economy of the introduction of a significant new private monopoly as a gatekeeper within the single highest capitalised part of the entire UK economy.

We believe, along with the Competition and Markets Authority that such a monopoly is not going to be possible to regulate properly. Given this it would be appropriate to model the impact on UK economic growth, and the size and growth of individual business sectors in particular, especially the digital services sector, and the land and property sector. We believe the dent in growth to these two sectors that will emerge from such a modelling exercise is likely to dwarf the short term revenue boost, by some distance.

We therefore request that the Government commissions an independent modelling firm to assess the likely impact of privatisation on the size of related parts of the UK economy, an overall economic growth, and the size of the national debt.


Final Questions from BIS

Do you have any other comments that might aid the consultation process as a whole?




Please use this space for any general comments that you may have, comments on the layout of this consultation would also be welcomed.



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