On Jan. 14, Chapel Hill’s town staff held an event at the public library to introduce the town’s new open data portal to the community, and gather feedback about where to take it going forward.
If you haven’t yet seen the portal, we encourage you to visit www.chapelhillopendata.org. Launched last summer, the portal is a platform for sharing the data the town collects and manages so that citizens can use this information, that is essentially ours in the first place, to help make our community a better place.
What kinds of data does the platform have? The portal has everything from fire hydrant locations to greenway pedestrian counters, police arrest details to community survey data. What’s there now is only a small portion of what the future may hold; the event actively encouraged attendees to suggest other types of data that the town may hold and can share or other regional governments and organizations may have that can be connected to from this platform.
To us, what was more important than the data currently available on the portal was seeing the commitment of town staff from a wide range of departments commit to doing the town’s work with transparency. When data is shared, we can all be collaborators in making policies and services more effective.
Admittedly, Chapel Hill is not on the leading edge here. Many other communities have been enabling citizens to be collaborators through the use of civic technology for years. But putting this digital infrastructure in place is an important step in helping us catch up, and move from being followers to leaders in using technology to help our residents make data-driven decisions.
Open data alone is itself not a solution. It’s a tool that we can use, but if no one wields the tool, then its value is greatly diminished. Data, without interpretation, is just data.
The value comes when we build something with it.
First, there’s the public policy side. Imagine decisions driven not by the loudest voices in the room, but by what the data show.
How much more does it cost to provide infrastructure and services to spatially dispersed residents in suburban developments? What is the difference in tax impact between two competing proposals, and how will the decision between them affect our budget?
Where do our most at-risk populations live, and how does the geographic dispersement of services help or hinder their access to those services? What does our population actually look like, and do our advisory boards accurately reflect the whole of our population?
But data is good for much more than just the policy side. By opening up data, the town unleashes the potential for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses alike to help our local government to better serve us.
As wealth and income gaps continue to widen, building digital services on top of open data can provide an even more important role in serving our wider community. According to a recent report on smartphone ownership from the Pew Research Center, 19 percent of Americans have limited access to getting online outside of their smartphone or have no other internet access at home, and this group tends disproportionately to be made up of poor households, young people, and people of color.
These groups are, not surprisingly, also the groups who are most absent from more traditional methods of gathering public input, and face barriers of time, know-how, or access to interacting with town government in person.
So we challenge our community to ask ourselves, how can we use Chapel Hill’s public open data to build applications and tools to make sure town services and information can be delivered mobile-first? How can we empower our citizens with the technical know-how to make this happen to more easily engage with government?
At CityCamp NC last fall, one of us had the privilege of hearing from Jen Pahlka, former U.S. deputy chief technology officer and executive director of Code for America, who offered these words of wisdom: “The problems that get solved have everything to do with who does the solving.”
Now that we’ve been empowered with data as citizens, journalists, and elected leaders alike, what problems are we going to solve? We believe Chapel Hill has enough of a progressive spirit that we as a community will use this new tool filled with open data to serve the problems of our whole community and not just ourselves.
Jason Baker and Molly De Marco are Chapel Hill residents and editors of OrangePolitics.org. Josh Mayo is a UNC undergraduate and Chapel Hill native.