The city of Bellevue collects lots of data. The data comes from things like construction permits, 911 calls and business licenses. Today, it announced plans to publish more of that data online. But it’s not without risk for the city.
Data can be boring to sift through, but it can reveal fascinating things. And so, journalists like Kate Martin of the Tacoma News Tribune routinely ask governments to give them data. “When they start asking questions like, 'What are you going to use this for?' it makes me think they have something to hide,” says Martin.
Martin was reading through some data, a list of Tacoma’s recent purchases, when she learned the city had purchased a controversial piece of surveillance equipment known as the stingray. Martin wrote a story about Tacoma’s stingray. “I think readers were pretty surprised,” she says. “They didn’t realize that police had this little machine that they had heard about in the national media.”
That gap between what governments know and what citizens know can lead to distrust.
Claudia Balducci is the mayor of Bellevue. “People don’t know so much of what goes on in government. And I don’t mean that in a sinister way – they just don’t know,” she says.
Bellevue has accepted help from billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s foundation – to help put more of Bellevue’s data online.
Mayor Balducci is aware of the risk. “Any time you put a lot of data out, it’s going to show things that we wish weren’t so,” says Balducci. “It’s gonna show that crimes are occurring in certain neighborhoods. It’s gonna show that we have safety risks on our transportation system. But our commitment is to learn those things so that we can address them and do better and provide better, more targeted service.”
Bloomberg has also swept up Tacoma, Anchorage and Seattle in his government transparency project.
So will these efforts usher us into a golden age of transparency?
Reporter Kate Martin isn’t holding her breath. “I kind of come at it with a skeptical mindset,” she says. “I don’t think they’re ever going to be truly open. But it would be nice if it were more than just the illusion of transparency.”
I asked Bellevue officials if they would publish a list of the city’s purchases, the kind of data that led to reporter Kate Martin’s stingray story. Bellevue officials said maybe, eventually. If enough people want it.