UW Today

March 2, 2016

UW aids city of Seattle on open data initiative

News and Information

If people find it easier to get data from the city of Seattle going forward, they can in part thank the University of Washington.

A team of UW faculty members and doctoral students spent the past six months working with the city on a new open data policy unveiled last week by Mayor Ed Murray. The policy requires all city departments to make their data as accessible as possible to the public while upholding privacy and security considerations.

The UW team conducted focus groups to hear about the public’s wishes and concerns, assessed the city’s existing datasets and vendor agreements for security vulnerabilities, and held in-depth interviews with officials in eight city departments to identify their data processes.

“It was pretty intense,” said Jan Whittington, head of the UW’s Urban Infrastructure Lab and one of the project’s leaders. “We wanted to take a really comprehensive approach, because we knew that the city wanted to take an innovative and large step forward in terms of tackling this issue.”

Murray signed an executive order Feb. 26 directing all city departments to comply with the new policy, which he said is intended to help “problem-solvers outside of government” find solutions to civic challenges.

“This executive order encourages more transparency between the city and outside partners, and ensures we develop tools that provide critical insights for the public on what’s happening in our city,” he said in a release.

But making data readily accessible to the public is more complicated than people might think, Whittington said. Municipalities collect a broad range of data on everything from city infrastructure to budgets and service delivery, she noted, including potentially sensitive data about people who live and work in the city.

“When contemplating whether or not a particular dataset would harm privacy if it’s released for open data use, that’s both a technical exercise as well as an exercise in ethics and policymaking,” said Whittington, a UW assistant professor of urban design and planning.

According to the city, more than 400 datasets have been made open since the launch of its open data program in 2010. That data powers tools on the city’s website such as the police department’s Neighborhood Crime Map and the transportation department’s Capital Projects Dashboard. The city hopes to have 554 datasets in total available to the public by the end of this year.

The UW’s work is part of its partnership with the city under the MetroLab Network, a national initiative pairing cities with research universities that have expertise in engineering, robotics and computer science to work together on “smart city” solutions.

The Urban Infrastructure Lab and the UW Tech Policy Lab collaborated on the city project, which also involved the Sunlight Foundation. The university’s MetroLab work is being spearheaded through the new Urban@UW initiative, which brings together UW researchers, Seattle officials and citizens to work on an array of urban issues.

The UW is currently partnering with the city on two other MetroLab initiatives. One involves installing sensors around Seattle to provide real-time data on air pollution, precipitation and other environmental indicators, with the goal of helping the city operate more efficiently and prepare for potential problems such as urban flooding. Under the other project, UW electrical engineering researchers will gather data from more than 100 temperature sensors around the city to investigate how changing temperatures are impacting electricity demand.

“There’s a lot of interest and momentum behind this work with the city,” said Bill Howe, associate director  of the UW’s eScience Institute. “MetroLab provides a mechanism to share ideas and input, and scale up projects that work so they can be applied in other cities.”

Funding for the MetroLab Network was provided by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.