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Protecting Big Data

Seattle’s digital privacy initiative aims to keep innovation on track with new data safeguards.

Big data can produce big operational and policy breakthroughs. And if not carefully addressed, it can produce even larger privacy concerns or a backlash. To date, most cities have been fortunate to avoid the backlash, but more as a result of good intentions than specific polices.

Pre-empting problems like these requires explicit policies and deliberate and continuing processes to update them. Cities need to consider data security, rules about guaranteeing anonymity, archival procedures and the ability to conduct forensic internal audits.  

As Seattle rolls out a citywide digital privacy initiative of unprecedented scale, which is expected to be fully in place by this fall, it looks to integrate the aforementioned measures to prevent such a backlash. Seattle proposes to control the way it collects, uses, retains and deletes data across departments. Leading the initiative is the city’s Department of Information Technology, headed by Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Michael Mattmiller.  

To inform the effort, the city created an inter-departmental team (IDT) with members from 11 departments across the city’s government. Seattle also created a Privacy Advisory Committee composed of privacy experts from a broad swath of disciplines to guide the drafting of policies by recommending best practices to the IDT.

The IDT aims to develop policies that allow the city’s privacy practices to evolve as quickly as the ever-changing landscape of digital privacy dictates. As Mattmiller explains: “We can’t legislate or control for every new piece of technology coming into the market. Things are just changing too fast, and often regulation is lagging behind what the market can do.”

Instead, the CTO and his team compiled a list of principles that outline the ways the city wants to consider the public when using data. This ethical framework unites city departments under a shared commitment to processes and policies intended to keep data secure, transparent and accurate, while still allowing them to adapt their practices to the times.

In the next few months, Seattle will provide departments with a “privacy toolkit” to help them comply with these principles. As part of this kit, the city will require departments to complete annual online privacy and security awareness classes to help keep city officials up-to-date on the latest practices. It will also provide them with a Privacy Impact Assessment protocol that requires departments collecting new types of data, embarking on new programs or introducing new technologies to go through a process to self-assess any privacy risk that innovation may entail.

Seattle created a publicly accessible Web page on which departments will be required to share these assessments — part of a larger effort to be transparent about digital changes. By informing citizens of the heightened privacy measures that protect their data and the services the city delivers with that information, this initiative should allay residents’ anxieties about government use of their data, and in doing so, pave the way for future innovation.

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Data Smart City Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.