How San Francisco is Opening More Data with a Premium on Privacy

Data-Smart City Solutions: The promise of open data is alluring: make civic data widely available and governments and the communities they serve can benefit from transparency,  new perspectives and approaches. Cities have published thousands of datasets to make good on this promise. Go to any open data portal, and you will find data on buildings, businesses, and budgets. What you won’t find as much is data about people, and for good reason: real privacy concerns limit its release.

Realizing the full power of open data requires wrestling with privacy issues. While data on buildings, businesses, and budgets is important, knowing how government affects people is equally or more important. Who is getting served or not getting served? What part of the population are they? What are their shared characteristics? Many questions people want answered are personal.

City departments are aware of this demand. They field daily requests for information, often generating time-consuming custom reports that aggregate the underlying data so that private information is obscured. As a result, departments frequently express a desire to make the underlying non-private data generally available to allow anyone to answer their own questions. Departments turn to law and regulation for guidance, but the vast majority of the privacy laws say what to do (de-identify personal data), not how to do it. A recent privacy report notes privacy laws can be "based on outdated PII [personally identifiable information] concepts which may give a false sense of security." This confluence of factors can result in data with privacy implications being siloed in individual departments and excluded from open data programs.

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