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seattleskyline-11The City of Seattle wants to do a better job of showing the public how it collects information, and today it launched a digital privacy initiative to do just that.

The initiative, which can be viewed here, aims to increase transparency into the City’s data collection and use practices, with a goal of being better prepared to leverage new technologies that involve the collection of data — from personal financial information to library circulation records. 

“We want to develop a shared sense of understanding in the City — what are our principles when it comes to privacy, what commitments do we want to make to the public, and then how do we live up to those principles as we move forward with new programs and new technologies,” City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller said in an interview. 

City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller.
City of Seattle CTO Michael Mattmiller.

There are three pillars of the initiative. To start, an interdepartmental team made up of representatives from different city sectors — police, fire, transportation, library, law, IT, light — will convene to help craft the initiative principles and a privacy statement. It will also create a “privacy toolkit” to help educate the departments on privacy practices and assess compliance.

Separate from that is a Privacy Advisory Committee that will be made up of researchers, practitioners, and community representatives, to help provide guidance on “potential public impact of proposed solutions.”

Finally, the City has partnered with the University of Washington for a research project that will examine the City’s current privacy practices and how releasing certain information via data.seattle.gov can harm or help the public. This work will be shared with the public and the hope is that other cities will be able to develop their own privacy practices based on the information. Microsoft put up $25,000 to fund the research, with the City matching that contribution.

Mattmiller, who was hired this past June, noted that one challenge departments have faced is figuring out how and when to publish data publicly given privacy risks.

“This research will enable an enhanced ability of departments to review and scrub their data in a consistent manner so they can make more data available to the public in a way that protects privacy,” he said.

The City hopes to have the policies and toolkit established by next spring:

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Mattmiller said that Seattle is one of the only cities around the world that is establishing a privacy initiative like this. He hopes that by making more data available to the public — there are already 300 data sets available at data.seattle.gov — people can figure out ways to use the information to benefit the city.

“When we make open data available, it spurs innovative uses of that data, which both helps the public and spur economic development,” he said.

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Four city employees helping manage the initiative briefly met with the Seattle City Council on Monday morning. Mattmiller referenced Zillow as an example of a startup in a “high-tech city like Seattle” using engineers to leverage data provided by the government.

“Zillow’s business model is based on having open data around real estate, and we need to enable more scenarios like that in the city,” Mattmiller told the council.

The over-arching purpose of the initiative is to help the City establish a set of privacy standards that it can apply to any new technologies that have potential privacy implications. It’s designed to help avoid situations like when the Seattle Police Department had to pull the plug on a controversial unmanned aerial vehicle program last year.

“We want to make sure the City of Seattle is a leader in this country in how we use technology and how we use personal information of our residents,” said Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who also chairs the Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee.

Check out the full initiative here:

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