Smart Cities, Open Data and the Promise of Transparency

Urban leaders around the world have pledged their support for smart city initiatives. Much of the smart city discourse is produced through claims being made by corporate executives and city officials. Some tech firms and municipal managers believe that investments in advanced information communication technology will improve citizen participation and result in a more democratic city. This top-down perspective suggests increased civic involvement requires urban leaders to open the lines of communication to enable citizens to participate.

While the open data movement has visible support from all levels of government, open data policies and practices are a work in progress. Even early adopters like the City of Philadelphia, which released a comprehensive review of their progress late last year, are still finding their footing. The new strategic plan for the city acknowledges the need for additional policies and systems that guide decision makers on the suitability of a given data set for ‘open’ status. The political nature of open data was made clear when the city’s Chief Technology Officer resigned, claiming there was a culture of resistance in the administration, which would prevent payroll and procurement data from being released. [1]

The open data movement is also gaining traction through the efforts of grassroots organizing. In many of the cities listed by the Government of Canada and the United States Government as having open data programs, there are locally organized collectives pushing for improved access to information. Civic-minded individuals and groups often organize intensive ‘hackathons’ where ideas for using open data sets are converted into programs and applications. These events are at times coordinated at national and even global scales. One such event, taking place in late February, aims to bring the smart city and open data movements together in a ‘Smart Cities Hackathon’. In Canada and the U.S., Boston, Oklahoma City, and Vancouver will participate. If the Philadelphia lesson is any indication of what is ahead for the open data movement, more events like these will be required for the transparency promise to be realized.



Zaleski, Andrew. “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years,” January 12, 2015.


[1] Zaleski, “Welcome to the Open Data Movement’s Turbulent Teenage Years.”

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