Open cities enter a new era: key takeaways from the Open Cities Summit


In September 2018 the Sunlight Foundation’s Open Cities team co-hosted the Open Cities Summit, a biennial gathering of open government advocates, civil society, civil servants, and others working at the local level. The theme of this year’s Summit was, “Open and Smart: The Evolution of Open Cities.”

The event’s morning remarks stressed the importance of open government and strong feedback loops for community participation, especially as cities begin to adopt new technology with untested effects. The Summit kicked off with reflections on open and smart cities from Fernando Straface, the Secretary General for International Relations of Buenos Aires, along with a number of keynote speakers each highlighting the present and future reality of smart cities, and the critical need for open government practices. Importantly, Rosario Pavese of Open Government Partnership Local explained on the first morning panel, “We [should determine] how we bring the participation to the citizens, not the citizens to the participation.”

While a number of spirited discussions on everything from the institutionalization of open government practices to the democratization of AI took place throughout the Summit, a few pressing themes emerged from advocates, technologists, and government officials in the room:

Opening data is not enough

Participants agreed that simply encouraging cities to open data, whether through the creation of an open data portal or any other means, is insufficient to meet resident needs. The ultimate goal of open data, rather, is for residents to make use of data to engage government and advocate for their needs, ensuring a healthy democratic process.

Too often, cities will implement an open data policy as an easy way to tick a box toward greater transparency. It is clear that open data policies and right to information laws must be accompanied by measures for strengthening citizens’ capacity to act upon the information made available to them, if such initiatives are to be effective in improving governance and service delivery. While many cities still face challenges in sharing open data that’s accessible and usable, the future of open data is in finding its potential to enhance collaboration and empower residents’ voices.

Governments should take a resident-centered approach

Participation was a hot topic at this year’s Open Cities Summit. Local governments have a unique advantage in fostering civic participation, as residents are more likely to engage when issues affect their life on a day to day basis. Harnessing this power means that city officials must move beyond their offices and involve their neighbors and constituents directly, encouraging them to give feedback and join the discussion on issues pertaining to their lives.

This theme moved beyond the Open Cities Summit to be reiterated at the “Smart Cities and Open Data” panel discussion at the 2018 International Open Data Conference, where Open Cities Director Katya Abazajian reminded participants to, “refocus [the open cities] conversation around open processes and open decision making.”

Smart city program success is contingent on resident trust in government

Smart cities use data and technology to create efficiencies, improve sustainability, and enhance quality of life factors for residents.

Smart city technology has the potential to substantially improve residents lives, but is not without risk. Cities are collecting more data now than ever before, and questions around resident privacy and the impact of substantial surveillance on civil rights are valid. Without proper accountability, smart city technology could easily be used corrupted and misused by powerful actors. This is why governments must be extra vigilant in adopting mechanisms for public transparency and democratic accountability around new technology. Sunlight’s Open Cities team identified a set of underlying principles smart cities should prioritize in order to ensure adequate public accountability and transparency as they adopt new technologies.

As Eric Reese of GovEx remarked, “If you [cities] want people to trust you, then you must, in turn, trust people.”

The Open Cities Summit gave advocates and practitioners opportunities to unite around these themes for the future of open cities, but the open data community also has work to do. As advocates for transparency, our responsibility is to ensure that these themes are not left to be discussed in closed circles, but in every engagement we have with cities. We have the power to help cities continue evolving as they learn more about open data and engagement.