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Seattle Addresses Privacy and Public Disclosure in New Strategy for Managing Big Data

Seattle Addresses Privacy and Public Disclosure in New Strategy for Managing Big Data

Earlier this year, the Seattle City Council adopted a set of six privacy principles regarding personal information. It was the first deliverable from the city’s Digital Privacy Initiative, an effort aimed at developing a comprehensive plan and process for how the city collects, manages, and uses data. Seattle’s efforts are pioneering in this area and are a likely precursor of discussions that many local governments will need to have in the near future. As jurisdictions adopt new technologies and use data to better serve their constituents, myriad questions of privacy and public disclosure are often left unanswered. Developing a clear strategy and process to address these issues, like Seattle is attempting, may help local governments steer clear of major problems down the road.

The impetus for Seattle’s Digital Privacy Initiative is the rise of big data. What is “big data,” you ask? It is a term used to describe the exponential growth and availability of massive amounts of previously uncollectable information due to our increasing use of new technologies. In the local government sector, big data is being employed in a variety of ways, including intelligent policing, water resource management, and transportation efficiency.

Many in the local government world praise big data and believe that harnessing it can be a huge opportunity to increasing efficiency and effectiveness in service delivery. The story of how New York City’s data team uncovered the connection between lis pendens filings and catastrophe-prone properties harkens back to the revolutionary work of John Snow in linking cholera outbreaks to water systems. Since most local governments don’t have the resources of NYC, some have pushed for making more municipally collected data publicly available, with the hope that the private sector will leverage this data for innovative discoveries. Locally, King County Metro has done this to provide the OneBusAway application, while Redmond and Renton have both set up open data portals. 

But as momentum and excitement swirls around the possibilities of big data, we may have overlooked the severe challenges it can pose to local governments as well. Much of the media attention has focused on privacy issues. Sure, laws can do a good job of protecting personally identifiable information – names, addresses, and social security numbers – but when you’re dealing with big data, a surprising amount of insight can be gained just from the aggregated information. For example, last year the Chicago Police Department used predictive statistics to form a “heat list” - a group of 400 individuals that it determined were at high-risk for committing crimes even though they hadn’t done so yet. As you can imagine, this caused some controversy, but the city at least argued this its intentions were good. This same issue becomes a lot more complex when you consider municipally collected data being used by private companies and organizations to potentially discriminate for their financial benefit.

From a government operations standpoint, the issues of transparency also loom large: more data means exponentially more effort in complying with open government laws, like Washington’s Public Records Act. Compliance was easier when it was just filing pieces of paper, but in today’s age of email, texts, social media, and other communications, retaining, managing, and retrieving this data in accordance with the law can be an utter nightmare. Seattle itself confronted this problem last year when a public disclosure request for police body camera footage threatened to tie up significant amounts of city staff and financial resources and ultimately put the body camera program on hold.

All of this doesn’t even touch on the increased IT security risks that arise from emerging technologies and big data. IT network attacks on governments are becoming more and more prevalent, and state and local jurisdictions alike are struggling to keep up; some have even called it “a battle we can’t win.” What are the implications then of continuing to collect more and more data about our communities and citizens that could potentially be stolen by hackers?

Seattle’s Digital Privacy Initiative, the first of its kind in local government, is an effort to take a step back from the big data frenzy, and really think through, on an organizational level, the full implications of new technologies as they relate to data management. As Councilmember Bruce Harrell, chair of the city’s Public Safety, Civil Rights, and Technology Committee, put it, this initiative is all about striking the “right balance between protecting . . . personal information, providing services and being transparent with the public.” By having this discussion, setting out clear policies, and establishing tools to foster consistent decision-making across the city, Seattle hopes that it will be more deliberate as it considers the adoption of new technologies moving forward.

The first step in this initiative was to establish the six privacy principles. While the principles don’t necessarily declare anything earth-shattering, they set up what Ginger Armbruster, Seattle’s Privacy Program Manager, called the “ethical framework” for the rest of the effort. The real meat of the Initiative will be a “Privacy Toolkit,” a package of tools that will help city leaders make decisions in compliance with these adopted privacy principles. The toolkit will be modeled on Seattle’s Race Equity Toolkit, which was designed as part of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative.

I will continue to follow the work of the Seattle Digital Privacy Initiative and will keep you informed as they work out the details of the Privacy Toolkit, expected to launch in August. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Seattle’s work on this, as well as your own jurisdiction’s experiences with the growing intersection of data, technology, privacy, and public disclosure.

Photo Courtesy of Michael B.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

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About Josh Mahar

Josh served as a Communications and Outreach Coordinator for MRSC and wrote about social media, government performance, and other local government topics. He no longer works for MRSC.