Tech companies: If you work with government, your data should be public

Author

Mapzen and Randy Meech

July 12, 2016

We’re seeing a range of tech businesses emerging to tackle some of the most basic infrastructure struggles cities encounter on a daily basis.

At face value, this is a big win for the public. They know and trust the consumer products these companies make, and it relieves governments from having to build and manage complex technology themselves. But looking deeper, these deals have the potential to create bigger problems than those they hope to solve.

The data these projects will create has tremendous value but is proprietary to each organization. So what’s to happen when these deals end — or if the company can’t continue? How can we create durable programs that citizens can rely on if the core data vanishes into thin air? The answer is simple: Require all data collected from publicly-financed services to remain open.

What3words recently announced a partnership with Mongolia’s national postal delivery service to provide the country’s addressing system. What3words is an addressing platform that just raised an additional $8.5 million in funding. The company maps three-word phrases to precise locations and targets developing countries, where it’s currently hard to send a letter or package due to a lack of addressing systems. The data is not open; it’s a proprietary asset of the company.

I applaud the work of What3words and recognize the need for it. They’re tackling an enormous issue that impacts a shockingly large number of people on earth and are in a position to change the daily lives of billions of people who do not have access to basic communications. However, what strikes me the most is the decision to marry the needs of Mongolian citizens with the potential turbulence of a venture-backed startup.

History shows that no company can guarantee its staying power, and startups are particularly insecure. What3words could eventually be acquired or shut down for lack of resources. If this happens, where will the address data go? How will a country like Mongolia that has come to rely on this data respond if it’s no longer accessible?

Continuing this trend, the Guardian recently reported that Sidewalk Labs, a subsidiary of Alphabet funded by Google, has proposed overhauling public transportation in the city of Columbus, Ohio. The company has developed a plan to incorporate multiple forms of transportation, including bus routes, car-sharing services like Uber, and camera-equipped cars, with the goal of simplifying the transportation system and improving hassles like parking your car.

Alphabet, of course, isn’t going anywhere. And with Google it has the maps and technology to do great work and help the government of Columbus and its citizens. But Google, like many other large companies, has a long history shuttering products that are no longer deemed valuable. If Alphabet takes a similar approach with Sidewalk Labs and eventually shuts down this transportation experiment, what will happen to Columbus and the transportation system its citizens have come to rely on?

There is a solution that will allow large and small companies to work effectively with governments and provide great consumer-facing products to citizens. When governments make deals with private sector technology companies, they must require that all the data remain open. Government-produced data in the US is already available in the public domain; this should be extended to the relevant data of private companies who seek to do work for the public.

This would have multiple benefits, ensuring that any essential infrastructure could remain available for as long as the public requires, even if the technology provider can’t continue the work. It also means our public institutions will not be beholden to private companies. Requiring that all public data remain open and accessible enables other companies and individuals to build upon and improve these systems for the benefit of all citizens, creating more opportunity and better products for the public.

Randy Meech is CEO of Mapzen.

This article was written by Mapzen and Randy Meech from VentureBeat and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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