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March 29th, 2016
Technology • Energy

Open data in government: Seattle, USA

In 2010, Seattle began its open data programme in response to the President’s Obama’s call for data transparency and the federal government’s launch of It made its first datasets available soon afterwards on its own portal, Seattle committed itself more firmly to the initiative through the publication of its Open Data Policy in February 2016 and is set fair to engage the business community and civil society in its quest for transparency.

The initiative

In 2009, Seattle's newly-elected mayor, Mike McGinn, focused on open data as a platform to improve access to public data, improve service delivery, and promote economic activity.

The open data movement has been suggested to help improve the public impact of government by generating “insights that will, in turn, inform a decision or action to improve outcomes in society - such as better services, improved accountability, and higher economic growth”. [2] [3]

In 2010, the context of the open data initiative was clear, and the programme, Seattle's Open Data Programme (ODP) was begun. “‘The federal government had just launched, and a number of cities had already adopted it,' said Bruce Blood, Client Services Manager for the Citywide Web Team at the City of Seattle. ‘The mayor, council members, and the city [Chief Technology Officer] CTO were all committed to open data.” Later in 2010, the city technology team launched the city's site using a cloud-based open data platform.

On 26 February 2016, “Mayor Ed Murray formally signed the city's new Executive Order on Open Data.” [4] This reaffirms the city's open data policy.

The challenge

Like many other major American cities, such as Boston, Chicago, New York and San Francisco, Seattle has long had a great deal of data of interest to the public. The city council saw the potential to ‘use open data to create a more responsive and cost-efficient city government'. [1]

Digital technology has meant that this data can be made available to citizens: data such as fire and police reports, or information about parks with playgrounds.

However, different protocols, using different addresses and other specification elements, were used for data-sharing between agencies. Each department had its own protocol resulting in technical problems with information sharing across Seattle's public administration.

The public impact

The open data environment enhanced cross-department data sharing; whenever agencies needed to update their data or protocols they could refer to publicly available data. “The city first released a single massive dataset, and then began adding datasets on crime statistics, alternative schools, public art, road maintenance, and more. In 12 months, Seattle had added 50 more datasets to its public data site. To date, it has published more than 150 unique datasets.” [5]

There are a number of apps available through the open data portal, such as a building permit visualisation, a crime dashboard and a cultural space inventory.

Stakeholder engagement

The stakeholders in Seattle open data initiative are:

  • The mayor (initially Mayor McGinn), council members and the city's CTO, who were committed to using open data as a way to widen access to information and help residents and businesses use city services in new ways.
  • External stakeholders, such as boards, commissions, and community members, were brought together to help develop a prioritised list of existing datasets that should be opened up.

However, there was a question about the city's level of engagement. [6] “Seattle's stakeholder engagement is not as strong as it could be. Without a promotional budget for the open data initiative, supporters are left to rely on word of mouth to notify community members of this resource.”  There were alternatives, though, as the document goes on to explain. “The city's partnership with Code for Seattle (Code for Seattle, 2014) has been particularly helpful with spreading the word.”

The launch of the Open Data Policy in February 2016 “supports stakeholder engagement - engaging the Civic Technology community to determine which data has the most value.” [7] It appears that stakeholder engagement is now being addressed in a more focused way.

Political commitment

There was a clear federal initiative for open data. On 20, 2009, President Obama issued an executive order on open government and transparency. A number of specific initiatives followed this order For example, on May 21, 2009, the federal government launched, an open data portal for federal agencies.

Seattle's mayor, Mike McGinn, renewed the open data executive order directing departments to comply with the new open data policy in February 2016. [8]

Public confidence

The public displayed a keen interest in open data, and the initiative stimulated the interest of the public making this a good case of public confidence.

Clarity of objectives

The objectives of Seattle’s open data policy were set out at the beginning, in 2010, and were reinforced by its 2016 policy document. “The City of Seattle is committed to expanding both the data it makes available to the public and tools for understanding this data, and the [ODP] has been created to realise these commitments. This Open Data Policy defines the principles governing City of Seattle Open Data and describes the expectations for department participation and governance of the [ODP].” [9]

Strength of evidence

There is evidence that the ready availability of data can improve the public impact of government if applied correctly by guiding decisions. Open data in Seattle followed other successful open data movements across America such as in the cities Austin, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco. [10] [11] The Federal Government also has an open data platform, housed at, where they claim the benefits of open data include  “cost savings, efficiency, fuel for business, improved civic services, informed policy, performance planning, research and scientific discoveries, transparency and accountability, and increased public participation in the democratic dialogue.”


In 2010, the city of Seattle evaluated a number of options for launching an open data initiative. These included using internal IT resources to build the technology infrastructure it needed. In the event, it opted for an existing open data platform, Socrata.

The financial feasibility, and the staffing of the portal, was addressed through the city's own budget. “Seattle's open data initiative is funded entirely through the city's Information Technology Department.  The most costly aspect of the project has been the expense associated with having a full-time employee to maintain the portal.  The second most costly expense is the city's service agreement with Socrata, the open data platform provider.” [12]


Seattle formed an open data team with a manager to manage the SODP. “Assisted by the Open Data Team, the Open Data Manager is responsible for the ODP and the data made public by the City. [13] Responsibilities include: …

  • “Hold regular meetings with the Open Data Champions to provide program updates and guidance, and to solicit suggestions for how the programme can grow and improve.
  • “Maintain a list of, and regularly engage, community stakeholders.
  • “Track and respond to questions and dataset requests from the public.
  • “Participate in events such as community forums, hackathons, webinars, and speaking engagements to promote Open Data and the City's [ODP] in particular.”

Seattle's department and offices will elect an open data champion (see Alignment below) who will serve as a point of contact and coordinator for their department's open data.


The Seattle ODP included a mechanism for measuring performance and consistently incorporates changes:

  • It has defined metrics to measure the performance which include context and environment, and data use and impact.
  • “After an internal campaign focused on how departments can tell their stories with data, it added 24 new dashboards in the first half of 2015. One of the dashboards shows all of the building permits, which are a leading indicator of the economic conditions.” [14]


Seattle's ODP has a mechanism in place to incorporate the interests of the city and its citizens. However, the city faces issues with coordinating efforts of various stakeholders.

There is a need for alignment within the city administration. “City departments and offices shall identify an Open Data Champion who shall serve as the point of contact and coordinator for the department's Open Data.” [15]

A number of new businesses have started using government open data along with other publicly and privately available information.

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