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Municipal open data raises hopes and concerns. The activities of cities produce a wide array of data, data that is vastly enriched by ubiquitous computing. Municipal data is opened as it is pushed to, pulled by, and spilled to the public through online portals, requests for public records, and releases by cities and their vendors, contractors, and partners. By opening data, cities hope to raise public trust and prompt innovation. Municipal data, however, is often about the people who live, work, and travel in the city. By opening data, cities raise concern for privacy and social justice.

This article presents the results of a broad empirical exploration of municipal data release in the City of Seattle. In this research, parties affected by municipal practices expressed their hopes and concerns for open data. City personnel from eight prominent departments described the reasoning, procedures, and controversies that have accompanied their release of data. All of the existing data from the online portal for the city were joined to assess the risk to privacy inherent in open data. Contracts with third parties involving sensitive or confidential data about residents of the city were examined for safeguards against the unauthorized release of data.

Results suggest the need for more comprehensive measures to manage the risk latent in opening city data. Cities should maintain inventories of data assets, produce data management plans pertaining to the activities of departments, and develop governance structures to deal with issues as they arise—centrally and amongst the various departments—with ex ante and ex post protocols to govern the push, pull, and spill of data. In addition, cities should consider conditioned access to pushed data, conduct audits and training around public records requests, and develop standardized model contracts to protect against the spill of data by third parties.



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