How technology vendors see the future of open cities


At Sunlight, we’re accustomed to crafting open data programs alongside city governments and the communities they serve. In February 2019, I had the opportunity to present Sunlight’s Open Cities team’s innovative work with U.S. cities at the Empower 2019 Conference, hosted by Laserfiche. Empower 2019 offered a rare opportunity engage with those who make open data happen from the technical side.

While the Open Cities team works to promote “platform-agnostic” government transparency, we often overlook the challenges and conversations that private vendors are having with cities in the open government space. Many IT companies and professionals offer products in the service of values like transparency and openness. Their views provide a unique look forward at how cities will adapt to doing open data better:  

The “bots” are coming

Businesses offer a wide array of products to City governments for records management, FOIA requests, and data storage. One of the most consistent aspects about all the new tech, and a prevailing industry standard, is the increasing use of AI, process automation and machine learning.

Some products contain “bots” with the ability to learn from repeated entries and structure data automatically based on patterns. This has the potential to better manage records and open data, and may be used for other purposes, like data modelling or analysis. While the use of AI by cities is still subject to much discussion, having a view into how private vendors are applying these technologies will help us monitor and advocate for responsible use in cities that are using these tools.

Open data is a must for vendors, too

Speaking directly to vendors and their clients, it quickly becomes evident that they are consumers of open data and have a financial interest in promoting City open data.

Technology vendors use contracting data to identify opportunities for the products they make. Open data is also utilized in the products and solutions they provide (like mapping software). Along with that vendors incorporate open data in product design, for example assessing City departments’ public datasets to understand how their own technology might improve City processes. Cities that center user research in their open data practice could have a more intentional role in informing tech vendors’ product design, creating space for public-private partnership that actually meet residents’ needs.  

Metadata, metadata, metadata

A significant step cities can take to help vendor partners, city staff, and residents is having good practices around metadata. Many vendors develop tools that rely on good metadata to function. We advise cities to require publishing metadata as part of their open data policies to ensure that data users can accurately find, analyze, and apply City data. Vendors want cities to consider their metadata as a valuable existing resource so that they can add to the impact and effectiveness of the open data that cities feed into their platforms.

Additionally, data standards like the OCDS for contracting data or those provided by entities like Google for transit data, while far from perfect, can help provide a foundation for structured data governance, and can make it easier for cities to create and maintain structured metadata. in making open data more impactful.

The overarching lesson at Empower 2019 was clear: we need space for more constructive, collaborative interactions between the open government community, tech vendors, and cities. In doing so, we can create an environment where the principles of transparency are built into the products that make government openness happen. Partnerships between governments and tech providers should help ensure that cities deploy new technologies using human-centered strategies and to work in the public interest.