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Seattle Calls for its Data to Be ‘Open by Preference’

Mayor Ed Murray’s executive order requires new standards of governance and policy around open data across all city departments.

SEATTLE — After more than five years of dating, Seattle and open data finally tied the knot. Mayor Ed Murray signed an executive order before a crowd of reporters, city employees and constructive-minded coders at co-working space Impact Hub Seattle on Feb. 26 that calls for new standards of governance and policy around open data across all city departments.

The order requires that all Seattle data be “open by preference,” which means that after privacy and security have been accounted for, the city’s preference will be to publish all its data. The order calls for city data to be available in machine-readable formats and demands rigor around the publication of information by requiring all agencies to name “open data champions” who will be responsible for connecting with stakeholders, taking inventory of their data, addressing privacy concerns and eventual publication.

“The city doesn’t have the capacity to solve all problems,” Murray said. “But by making our data available to the community, the community can be our partner in understanding what the data says and how we develop the best solutions going forward on any number of issues, whether it’s homelessness, whether its inequity, whether it’s how we can improve our already-great parks system. That’s why we’re doing this. We look forward to an opportunity not just for transparency, but for creativity and partnership.”

In alignment with the mayor’s comments, the order alludes to an array of endeavors that the new open data policy will support, including enabling decision-makers through the provision of data, improving the city’s relationship with its “underserved communities,” and fostering innovation and transparency.

Through the Bloomberg Philanthropies What Works Cities program, Seattle collaborated with the Sunlight Foundation to form the new open data policy the executive order mandates.

Stephen Larrick of the Sunlight Foundation touted the city’s efforts best, Seattle Civic Technology Advocate Candace Faber told the crowd minutes before the order was signed. “He notes that with the change to ‘open by preference’ from ‘open by default’ and the nuanced policy approach our city is taking to balance privacy concerns with greater openness in government, the city of Seattle is proposing a new model for open data policy in a post-Snowden world,” Faber said. “That’s a pretty big claim, but we think this policy lives up to it. The reason we were able to do that is because of partnership.”

The Sunlight Foundation assisted with the policy’s organization, breaking a long-standing tradition of disorganized data publication, said Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller. The University of Washington helped the city with the privacy implications of opening large amounts of data. Seattle’s formal goal is to have 20 cabinet-level open data champions trained and have published 544 data sets to the city’s open data portal by 2017.

“That’s a start,” Mattmiller said. “As much as we fully expect we’re going to get to a place where we make this part of the city’s DNA — that when you collect data, you already have plans for how you’re going to make it open — we’re not there today. We have 11,000 employees, and we have I can’t even begin to estimate how many data sets. So this is going to take time, but what we’re dedicated to doing is creating the culture and the knowledge in the city as well as the customer base that cultivates the environment where we can have more data flowing.”

After Murray signed the order, seven developers took turns demonstrating tools they created that are powered by Seattle’s open data.

University of Washington student and Hack the Commute winner Nick Bolten shared Access Map, a tool that helps wheelchair users plan travel routes.

Ethan Phelps Goodman presented Seattle in Progress, a map that makes city data about ongoing permits and land developments accessible to a wider audience by using the familiar Google Maps platform.

Code Fellows student Annika Haggelin demonstrated the Seattle Parks Finder.

University of Washington student and Microsoft Civic Engagement Fellow Alex Gingras showed off SPSInteractive, a website that visualizes public school data.

Code Fellows student Selena Flannery-Logg talked about a tool called HoofIt that adjusts Google Map routes based on sidewalk availability. The new open data policy will help the team locate data sets that add new functionality to the tool, Flannery-Logg said.

Luke Swart presented a website called Hey Duwamish!, so named for the city’s Duwamish Waterway. Hey Duwamish! monitors river cleanup and research and provides visitors a portal into the history of one of the city’s most impactful environmental sites.

“It took us two long years of many unanswered emails and dead-ends and lots of investigation to get this data to share with you all," he said. "We didn’t really have a lot of open data. We sort of had to generate it ourselves. We’re really looking forward to this new era where we can work together and share information together.”

Shelly Farnham previewed a website not yet publicly available, called Spokin, that measures community health and connects people across communities of place and practice.

“It’s so impressive to see what community members come up with on their own, and these were not directed city ideas,” Mattmiller said. “These were passions that people had that we were able to enable through the data that we released on And the more data we can get out there, the more ideas we can help cultivate, the more that we can help the community build really innovative solutions.”

One of state and city governments' longstanding challenges is overcoming institutional inertia to meet modern goals. It’s not that anyone is opposed to open data, Mattmiller said, but the city needs to be mindful that there are those who don’t see the value in risking publication of new data sets from their agencies.

“The first thing we have to do is go out and educate why data is so exciting,” Mattmiller said. “We have to bring people like Shelly and Joe in to present their solutions and show how they’re actually helping city employees do their jobs. We also have to teach them that there are new generations of tools that can really help them make their lives easier, give them data to inform policy, help them be more successful as they work with the community. And if we can drive that excitement, then the actual mechanization and implementing process to get the data published and make it open will actually feel like something that adds benefit and people want to do. … It’s so important to our future success.”