How Evolving Ideas Around Privacy Could Benefit Governments

As people grow accustomed to sharing personal information online via social networking services, an opportunity might exist for cities to gather data about citizens to help improve planning and public service delivery (with their permission of course).

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With the rise of social networking, a lot of attention has been focused on personal data and privacy issues. Concerns about who can view personal information, how it’s used, and who ultimately owns and controls it are clearly important when it comes using services like Facebook, Twitter and the like. These concerns have grown as stories about employers, banks and universities using information posted on social networking sites to deny people jobs, credit or admission to college.

Increasingly, the consensus is that responsible privacy and personal data policies should follow certain principles. First, they should allow people to easily see all the data that a company or agency has about them in one place. Secondly, it should allow them to control how the data is used or shared. Finally, it should allow them to download and/or take down the data if they choose. Companies like Facebook and Google have started to embed these concepts in their services, and even some government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services and the Veterans Affairs have deployed “blue buttons” to let citizens download their data all at once. This is all great news for anyone who wants to control their personal data and make sure their privacy is protected, and should be welcomed.

On the flip side, it’s interesting to track how people’s attitudes – particularly young people – have changed towards the whole notion of privacy. According to several polls and studies, members of the Internet generation (however you might happen to define that) are much more comfortable sharing information about their life and work online. The reason for this is because they understand (or believe) that the benefits to doing so far outweigh the drawbacks – for themselves, other individuals, and their organizations and society as a whole.

What does this mean for government? Obviously, government agencies generate and collect lots of data on their own, and open data advocates have been focused on getting them to make that data public. There’s also lots of data that they don’t have, but if they did, would help drive improvements for citizens. However, collecting new data (or updating outdated data sets) can be time consuming and expensive. Given people’s increasing proclivity to share information, it’s conceivable that citizens might be inclined to help the government collect some data about themselves – which in aggregate could be quite useful for addressing a variety of issues.

For example, data on where people live, work and travel (either gathered directly or from mobile devices) could help provide a better picture about traffic patterns and demands. Data about who is moving into and out of a city (why they moved, what they do, how many kids they have) could help economic development bureaus and school districts respond better to conditions. A city could perhaps even try developing an open property database, where property owners themselves update data about their lot and buildings (say, how many bedrooms are in a house, or if the furnace had been upgraded), to help inform housing needs inventories, zoning, and energy conservation efforts.

Of course, even with the growing propensity for sharing information online, Americans are by nature somewhat skeptical of government, and it’s unclear whether young people would share their personal information with City Hall the same way they might with Facebook or Google. However, if local governments deploy or make use of tools that follow the data and privacy principles outline above, and then make a case for sharing information to help create civic benefits, it’s possible that more people might be willing to create an online account with their local city government just a routinely as they might with their bank or favorite retailer.

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Tags: internet accessopen govopen cities

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