Privacy and Public Engagement in Seattle's Open Data Policy

By Stephen Goldsmith • April 11, 2017


This article originally appeared as part of a paper on What Works Cities’ Certification program.

The City of Seattle, Washington was one of the first U.S. cities to pursue open data, creating the first iteration of its open data portal in 2010 under Mayor Michael McGinn, a prominent proponent of government transparency. Since then, Seattle has established itself as a leader in open data, consistently increasing the volume and accessibility of available information. In 2015, Seattle was named a What Works City, and according to Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Michael Mattmiller, it came at the perfect time for building the city’s open data capabilities. “We were already thinking about how to re-engage the city and expand the open data portal’s use,” Mattmiller said. “One of the areas that we identified to focus on was this notion of creating an open data policy.” The city began work with What Works Cities partner the Sunlight Foundation to develop this policy. “It was very helpful for us to have the model policy language, to have specific policy objectives that we could work towards,” said Mattmiller. “But, we also realized that we had some unique aspects of Seattle that we had to mediate.”

For Seattle, it was important to develop a policy that fit the needs of the community, particularly in the realm of privacy. Mattmiller explained, “Before the What Works Cities engagement started, we had several missteps in our community about how we collected and used residents’ data…When we thought about opening more datasets, we felt the tension that our community was going to have between seeing this as a win for transparency and economic development and concern about what that data might do in terms of causing privacy harms.” The partnership with What Works Cities provided an impetus to mold an open data policy that worked for Seattle residents. The city partnered with the University of Washington and received a grant to develop a municipal privacy program, creating an action committee to establish a set of privacy principles to include in the open data policy. The city then reached out to the Seattle community for feedback on the policy, making a number of changes to the types of data to be opened. Seattle also established a network of open data champions in the city government to examine data before publication to monitor for invasive personal info and potential mosaic effects—combinations of datasets that together provide private information. To implement its privacy and open data policies, Seattle has partnered with the Future of Privacy Forum to identify and help mitigate risk present in its open data program, and contributed to research led by the Berkman-Klein Center at Harvard to share its policies with other cities.

However, publishing and protecting data was only the beginning for Seattle; the city then had to encourage city employees and citizens to use that data. Seattle began convening the open data champions and other city employees each month in an “Open Data Breakfast of Champions,” bringing in guest speakers to talk about applications of data. “Through these meetings we keep people enthusiastic and give them best practices,” said Mattmiller. Seattle also held a Data Camp, in which the city took employees off the job for three days for training on how to use the open data portal in addition to other data skills. Moreover, to promote resident engagement with data, the city created the position of Civic Technology Advocate, a data leader that goes into communities and hosts meetings, hackathons, and design labs to spread the goals of the open data program and empower residents to use this data. As a result, the city has seen the development of a number of useful tools and applications. For example, thanks to a Park Hackathon, developers created a tool using Parks Department trail data that helps users navigate Seattle’s parks.

By creating an open data policy that engaged users but fit the needs of Seattle employees and residents, the city was able to invigorate and institutionalize its open data program.

This article was written in conjunction with Harvard Kennedy School's Chris Bousquet, Research Assistant/Writer.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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