Open contracting in practice: protecting digital rights and responsible emerging tech


Open contracting is one of the most exciting strategies towns and cities can adopt to give residents access to information on how public money is spent. This blog post is the second in a series exploring how open contracting is not just a process improvement, but a reform that could bring positive change to some of the most challenging issues facing local governments. 

For anyone who thinks about urban infrastructure, the term is commonly understood to include communication and transportation systems, roadways, water, power, public buildings, and public spaces. Increasingly, cities are buying technologies to connect urban infrastructure to cloud-based computing and data collection systems. In any scenario where cities are buying products from third parties to update essential infrastructure, city decision makers are either making direct no-bid agreements with private companies or going through public procurement processes to craft contracts for public-private collaborations. 

In order for residents to know how city governments are connecting urban infrastructure and using it for mass data collection, city governments have to commit to open and transparent contracting and public advocates must ensure that city officials are going through processes with strong accountability mechanisms to make these agreements. 

Every technology from internet service infrastructure to private doorbell cameras are passing through public procurement processes or public-private negotiations and are having disparate impacts on communities and people of color. Some communities are beginning to organize against the consequences of inequitable tech policy, without political support from local governments who could take more intentional measures to pass policies for equitable tech policy, as the City of Portland began to do in 2016 and has continued to do

Local governments must take active steps to institutionalize processes for accountability in contracting and implementation of new connected technologies and surveillance systems. 

By following basic open contracting best practices, cities can invite residents into the design process for new smart city projects, publish contract language openly for public accountability, communicate how and why they selected certain providers to install smart city infrastructure, and report on performance metrics to ensure that smart city technology providers are aware of and responsible for acting in the public interest. In each of these areas, cities can also experiment with new and inclusive ways to engage the public in decision-making. 

Future cities without open, transparent, and accountable smart city contracts could be more exaggerated, unequal versions of the cities we live in now. If the market is allowed to drive the implementation of new technology in infrastructure, higher income communities with stronger representation in government and more “market power” may have the influence to ensure that governments aren’t exploiting or over-surveilling their own neighborhoods. But in neighborhoods where audio surveillance and facial recognition are already being deployed in the name of “reducing crime” and collecting massive amounts of personal data in the process, it’s not likely that soft power will get the same results. 

In September, Greg Jordan-Detamore hosted a panel with Hector Dominguez, City of Portland Open Data Coordinator, Alex Lawrence, City of Boston DoIT Chief of Staff, and Jennifer Olzinger, City of Pittsburgh Assistant Director of Procurement. The panelists discussed the importance of open contracting in cities considering buying new technologies to collect data or support connected infrastructure. Panelists agreed that city procurement needs serious reform before its even relevant to discuss emerging technologies and their implications. If cities aren’t thinking ahead about how to restructure contracting processes overall, they’ll be unable to accurately assess the risks of new technologies and effectively engage communities.

What’s more is that if cities don’t apply open contracting to technology procurement for smart cities, they run the risk of serious blowback among community advocates, as we’ve seen with the emergence of movements like #BlockSidewalk in Toronto. Cities can also work with citizen commissions, as the City of Oakland has done, to actively incorporate advocates’ opinions into the policies that are governing procurement and implementation of smart city infrastructure and surveillance technology. 

It’s not just that residents don’t want new technology to be rolled out in their city without their input, although community engagement is an essential function to ensuring that open contracting yields positive returns to the public. It’s that the types of technologies that cities are buying to connect infrastructure and surveil residents carry an inherent risk to vulnerable groups and communities of color that will exacerbate issues of segregation and inequality if cities fail to enact protective measures in advance. 

By engaging community advocates early and often, cities can also protect themselves and avoid simple pitfalls of procurement, like multi-decade contracts that lock cities into proprietary contracts with little room for vendor accountability. 

If we treat emerging smart city technology as public infrastructure, residents should be able to ask basic questions about its function and impact, and have a right to answers. How will it make the city better for everyone? How will we know if having unintended side effects or disparate impacts (aka broken)? How often will it be repaired? How should residents report problems in the system? 

Open contracting is an important first step to open the door for these conversations. Before, during, and after the contracting process for these technologies, cities can engage residents to determine what their residents need and how they can reflect those needs in their procurement decisions. When it comes to connected infrastructure and surveillance technology, taking this simple step has the potential to correct the course of urban development toward a more equitable, participatory, and technologically-empowered future.