Blog Post

Municipal Data Sharing Mandates and the Future of Urban Governance

  • Stephen Larrick
| Nov. 09, 2021

An ongoing power struggle between cities and digital platforms is playing out in municipal data sharing programs and the debate surrounding them. What does it mean for the future of urban governance? 

Who sets the rules in cities? 

While “city hall” might seem like the self-evident answer, in the more than a decade now since the first stay at an AirBnB  and since the first trip in an Uber, tech companies—starting with the so called “sharing economy” and continuing with “urban tech” and “smart cities”—have been setting digital platform rules for their users’ behavior in urban space, complicating the question of city governance, and triggering an ongoing power struggle between public agencies and private digital platforms. 

One way this power struggle is playing out is in the emergence of local-government-imposed data sharing mandates under which cities require that private companies—often networked, sharing economy platforms—report granular digital information to a public agency on an ongoing basis as a prerequisite for permission to operate within the jurisdiction. Knowledge is power, after all. 

Depending on who you ask, these programs either provide needed tech oversight and democratic accountability while charting a promising and innovative new path for public-private collaboration and informed government decision making; or are an alarming overreach, infringing on civil liberties and in the process building a dangerous surveillance infrastructure for a big-brother police state. 

This framing matters. How we ultimately conceive of data sharing programs will have broad implications, not just for who can access user-generated information about urban environments, but fundamentally about how we define the commons and how we conceive of democratic governance in our cities in the information age. Given what’s at stake, the heated nature of the debate surrounding these programs is understandable. However, as someone who has worked in for the public sector in a city hall, who has worked in non-profit advocacy to promote digital rights and data ethics in cities, and who most recently worked for an urban tech platform directly involved in real-life data sharing programs, the current “pick a side” binary of the debate—pinning local government oversight and public sovereignty against user privacy and civil liberties—can feel stuck in the abstract and ideological, far removed from the nuanced reality of what is happening on the ground in communities.  

I’m here at the Belfer Center’s Technology and Public Purpose program to explore that nuanced reality in depth and to contribute what I find to the conversation. That’s why throughout this academic year I’ll be researching municipal data sharing mandates across a variety of jurisdictions and technology sectors—starting with data reporting requirements imposed on sharing economy companies by local governments here in the US—and developing an online public resource hub that will make the specifics of these programs more discoverable, comparable and accessible to stakeholders—from advocates and academics, to public officials and policymakers, to tech companies, and to platform users and neighborhood residents. 

I anticipate that this online data sharing policy hub will include: 

  • A searchable repository of data sharing policy texts and associated program language made machine-readable and downloadable 

  • A research database of policy metadata evaluating and comparing data sharing programs across a set of standardized parameters 

  • A map of what cities are requiring what companies/sectors to share data and why 

  • Qualitative and quantitative research findings and analysis that may include case studies, trend analysis, a taxonomy of emergent data sharing governance models, normative recommendations and identification of risks and best practices, etc. 

The conversation about how we conceive of privacy, the right to information, and democratic power in the city is one we need to have together. A municipal data sharing policy hub will provide a shared starting point for opening up that discourse. 

To the extent that responsible data sharing mandates might advance public interests and democratic accountability, I hope a municipal data sharing policy hub will help public officials, policy drafters and the communities they represent develop better policy. 

To the extent that these programs might pose risks to user privacy and civil liberties in urban space, I hope research outputs will aid advocates and academics in taking stock of where risks are greatest and holding public officials to account. 

And, to the extent that data sharing programs have something to tell us beyond how we handle scooter data—about what information our democratic institutions are owed and why, about who gets to set the rules in urban communities, about what limits we should place on government reach and on platform power—I hope this work helps illuminate how we are encoding those values and makes the conversation surrounding those political choices just more tangible, understandable and accessible. Because this vision for the future shouldn’t be set by a DOT director or by Uber; and it shouldn’t be up to a handful of academics and technologists and urban policy nerds (myself included). It’s a conversation we all need to have together. 

If you’d like to join the conversation and get involved in this work—especially if you are a public official or tech company employee with direct experience with municipal data sharing programs—please reach out by sending an email to 

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Larrick , Stephen.Municipal Data Sharing Mandates and the Future of Urban Governance .” Perspectives on Public Purpose, November 9, 2021,

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Photo of Stephen Larrick