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Building public data principles

We're building a set of principles. We want to ensure public data makes the City work better for residents, and we want your help. 

The City of Boston often collects information, or data, about many things. These include air quality, road conditions, and how many people use public spaces.

When collecting this kind of data about the City, we do not try to identify specific people. We also don't gather sensitive information about you. We collect data so that we can make the City work better for you. We call this kind of information “public data."

Why we did this

We care about how public data is collected, handled, and stored. These practices directly affect privacy and security for not just the City, but also for its residents. We want to ensure that when any of this kind of data is collected, it is used to make life better.  Our goal is to create a more livable, stronger, and sustainable city. At the same time, we are committed to:

  • protecting your privacy
  • keeping your information safe and secure, and
  • ensuring no more data is collected than is needed. 
We Want Your Input

We've worked with students enrolled in the Harvard Cyberlaw Clinic to learn from the experiences of other cities. These range from Chicago to New York and Toronto. These are some of the principles we've identified as key to successful and equitable open data initiatives. They were formulated to complement Boston’s values and enacted policies, such as Resilient Boston and Boston’s Open Data Policy.

Our goal

We want to craft a set of principles that can guide our data collection and management infrastructure.

Do you think these principles can get us there? Are we missing something important? Please get in touch, we'd love to hear from you.


Working Principles

Collecting data for a specific goal and ensuring data-related projects promote an equitable and effective Boston for all residents

Purpose as a principle means proactively evaluating new opportunities to use data collected from the public realm in our efforts to make Boston a more equitable city. It means using data in order to improve our collective resilience, connectivity to each other, and adaptivity in the face of challenges. Data should not be collected for purposes other than improving Boston and should be evaluated to ensure no one is left behind in these efforts. Data should be used to ensure access to economic and educational opportunities and to work towards “closing the gaps” that exist in our society.

Collecting the minimum amount of data for our purpose and ensuring anonymity at the earliest stage possible

Ensuring the privacy of our residents is respected and protected when data is collected is a top priority. Some forms of collected data may contain information that could be traced back to an individual person when combined with other data. Because of this, measures to prevent excess information from being collected are imperative. Privacy as a principle means anonymizing and de-identifying data at the earliest level possible, limiting sharing and access to sensitive data, and limiting analysis to only that public data which must be analyzed.

Ensuring that any and all public data collected from the public realm is stored in a secure manner to protect it from unauthorized access or unintended release

All data stored, either by the city or by a third party on the city’s behalf, is securely held and protected against data breaches or other forms of unauthorized access. Security as a principle means handling data in a way that minimizes the chances of an unintended release of information.  The goal should always be to protect data and share only data that should be shared.  When protected public data is no longer needed, it should be safely and securely deleted or stored. 

Working collaboratively with the community to continuously evaluate our data governance standards and processes 

The community has a voice in what public data projects are pursued, what data is collected, how long the data is kept, and how data is used. Governance as a central principle means using data-related city initiatives to help residents become more engaged, aware, and involved. Continuous reviews and audits of existing programs and increased levels of resident engagement in shaping future projects, is key to data governance. Boston welcomes a high level of community engagement and encourages community members to voice their concerns and ideas.

Inform the public when and why we plan to collect data from the public realm, provide opportunities for input on how this public data is used, and offer mechanisms for community review and oversight.

Before a new public data collection program is implemented, the public will be made aware of the program’s details, in a clear, straightforward manner. This will allow the public to access, engage with, and contribute to new and ongoing programs. Public data should be used for the public interest; this limitation also applies to third parties accessing the data. Transparency as a principle means that any change in project's scope or data practices will be clearly communicated to the public in advance, allowing for public engagement. 

Providing the public with information about how Boston is holding itself accountable to, and complying with, its declared principles.

The data and information collected by our public realm programs will be accurate, useful, and responsibly obtained. For each project, we will provide mechanisms to hold ourselves accountable to the public, through sharing of information, milestones, and progress. With every new venture, there is an element of risk. Accountability as a principle means considering these risks when planning for new projects, and working with residents to minimize them. Accountability as a principle means maintaining responsibility and acting with integrity in the best interest of its residents.

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