One day in 2012, the scent of burning leaves spread across the Mordecai neighborhood just north of downtown Raleigh. It was the beginning of a minor crime wave – and an inspiration for a new civic hobby.
Week after week, people would step through their front doors to find fall foliage aflame or smoldering in curbside piles. By December, they had counted a dozen likely acts of arson, usually after midnight.
“It was kind of creating that natural panic. You start to worry about your own leaf pile,” said Reid Serozi, then a co-chairman on the local council.
So Serozi, then a business analyst for SAS, did what came naturally. He looked for data, asking the city-county emergency communications center for public records of fire calls from his neighborhood.
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“I didn’t really realize it, but I was probably conducting a public records request,” he said. That request brought a spreadsheet with addresses, and those addresses became pinpoints on a digital map, all clustered around Frank Street. The map went on a neighborhood website, and suddenly the neighborhood terror became something more quantifiable.
“I gave people the information they were looking for,” he said.
The project wouldn’t catch the criminal, but it pulled Serozi into a new culture of “open data,” where coding brigades and “civic geeks” rove government databases in search of something useful to do. One early result is Eric Majewicz’s RGreenway, a free app that uses public data to guide people through the local greenway network. More than 15,000 people had downloaded it as of last year.
Governments appear to be buying into open data too: In the last few years, the governments of Raleigh, Wake County, Durham and Durham County have launched or approved special services to make digital information easier to access and use. Cary celebrates Triangle Open Data Day, though the town’s open data website hasn’t been working recently.
Wake County Open Data can tell you how many animals were put to sleep at the shelter last month, or how Lake Wheeler’s waters tested. You might use the Open Raleigh service to see every building permit filed in the last 15 years, or to pull up the same fire-call records that Serozi had to request just a few years earlier.
There are about 50 such municipal and county portals in the United States, Minneapolis reported as it launched its own last month. It’s an idea that usually comes with a cost. The city of Durham will pay $95,000 this fiscal year for its new data portal, while Raleigh will pay $78,000.
North Carolina has a mixed record in providing open data to the public. The State Board of Elections supplies a trove of data on campaign finance and voter registration. The prison system has long allowed any citizen with an Internet connection to look up the criminal records of prison inmates and probationers, as well as their prison disciplinary records.
On the other side of the coin is the state court system, which makes almost no data available on the Internet. At best, citizens can trek to a courthouse and try to extract information from terminals using a 1980s interface. Obtaining public records is difficult, slow and invariably requires the help of a court clerk.
The audience for the new services has been relatively small, compared to local population counts. Open Raleigh Web pages were viewed about 11,000 times last month, according to the data the site publishes about itself. Meanwhile, the city population is pushing a half-million.
Jason Hare, who helped launch the Raleigh and Durham services, said he doesn’t expect most Raleigh residents to log on and grab themselves some data. Hare, a consultant in data services, sees the Raleigh portal as a source of information for journalists, programmers, businesses and other “power users.”
Together, those users pulled about 23 million rows of data from Open Raleigh in January – proof, Hare said, that it’s fulfilling its mission.
“We as people still use journalists and other folks to tell us what’s going on,” he said. “I’m not going to fly to Baghdad (to get international news). I’m going to listen to someone and figure out if I believe them.”
Reporters have long acted as those intermediaries, interpreting records and navigating file-transfer systems. Elections results were among the first information to go online, and real estate professionals have long trawled government’s land-records websites.
Now, programmers and hobbyists are joining the fray, attracted perhaps by the easier interfaces of the data portals and the proliferation of commercial and free services that make it easier to crunch the information into a usable product. For example, the website cartodb.com can slap city crime reports onto satellite maps.
Data-management companies, meanwhile, are competing for the business of putting government data online. Socrata, one of the largest players, runs Raleigh’s portal. The same services also can ease communications between city departments, providing a central bank for maps and statistics.
And where governments move slowly, they might find themselves sucked into the data age anyway. Developers, journalists and others are using increasingly sophisticated tools to “scrape” information from government websites and into more useful database systems.
Access not universal
It’s not clear yet how, or whether, this flood of data will reshape government.
Interest in these programs is running high. Code for Raleigh, a civic-minded programming group, draws about 25 people to its monthly meetings, the coding sometimes happening on televisions in front of a crowd. The group’s collaborative projects haven’t made a huge splash yet – but that might change soon.
The “brigade” is working on a service called Where’s My School Bus?, based on a program by the same name in Boston. Using GPS data from Wake County school buses, the developers hope to let parents track their children on the routes to and from schools.
The system requires users to enter a last name, student identification number and the student’s birthday before it shows a bus location. Created by another Code for America group, it already has been adopted by Boston Public Schools.
“We believe that government is created to solve problems, and we like to facilitate that process,” said Serozi, who now works for Socrata but was not speaking for the company.
This new burst of data-powered entrepreneurship, however, may mean little for the communities beyond the state’s bubbles of growth.
The town of Roper, population 600, doesn’t have a municipal website. It sits in northeastern North Carolina’s Washington County, which has the state’s 14th-highest rate of poverty, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The town hasn’t had a website for several years, Mayor Estelle Sanders says. Most people just walk to Town Hall for their meeting agendas, or call Sanders’ cellphone to report stray cats.
No one ever asks to inspect public records, Sanders said. But she sees both a website and broadband Internet access as key to the revitalization of a shrinking town on the edge of the Albemarle Sound.
“They simply don’t run the lines to rural areas (outside town limits), or the people can’t afford it,” she said. “They simply don’t have access. And, to me, access is like electricity.”
Staff writer Joe Neff contributed to this report.
This is Sunshine Week, when journalists, librarians and other advocates of open government celebrate freedom of information. Look for more coverage in print and online this week.
Support for police cameras
North Carolinians overwhelmingly support police wearing body cameras while on duty, according to a new poll from Elon University, but they are less certain about whether the resulting video should be made public.
Ninety-one percent of respondents favored use of the cameras, which record police interaction with people on the beat. Calls for use of the cameras have been increasing after a series of incidents nationally in which police have shot and killed suspects, some of whom were unarmed.
Of those surveyed, 63 percent said video footage should be made public. Police agencies have said that combing through video to make it available for release could be time-consuming and expensive.
On other issues involving police powers or public records:
▪ The public appears split on police use of drones for aerial surveillance. Forty-seven percent of respondents approved, while 45 percent disagreed.
▪ Three-quarters of those polled said the names of people who donate to political campaigns should be public.
▪ A sizable majority of respondents, 62 percent, were unaware of laws that make government records public.
The poll was conducted Feb. 16-20 and involved 867 North Carolina residents. It has a margin of error of 3.33 percentage points.
Where to find data
Open data sources list: http://bit.ly/1Aq8Buy
Open Raleigh: https://data.raleighnc.gov includes finances, construction, public safety incidents
iMAPS property data: http://maps.raleighnc.gov/iMAPS/
Code for Raleigh: http://codeforraleigh.com/
Property data, including some public safety and voting information: http://aries.co.orange.nc.us/
State of North Carolina
Board of Elections: www.ncsbe.gov/ncsbe/ includes campaign finance records, voter demographics
N.C. Department of Corrections: http://bit.ly/1GBnaA6