How Triangle towns aim to make government more transparent and accessible

Wake Forest is the latest Triangle town to launch an open-data portal.
Wake Forest is the latest Triangle town to launch an open-data portal. jleonard@newsobserver.com

Governments are often criticized for their lack of transparency, but some towns and cities in the Triangle area are trying to change that.

Within the past five years, Raleigh, Durham, Cary, Chapel Hill and, most recently, Wake Forest have launched portals that allow residents to sift through troves of data, including records on crime reports, development plans, demographics, budget information and greenways.

A group of volunteers from Girl Develop It, a nonprofit that gives women opportunities to learn software development, led the push for Wake Forest’s program. Last fall, they built a portal for the town at CityCamp NC, an annual event where attendees pitch ideas for how technology can improve government and better inform citizens. The group ended up winning a prize for their program.

“I was envious of this avenue for citizen engagement,” said Suzanne Beaumont, one of the volunteers. “I discovered that the only reason Wake Forest didn’t have a portal was because no one had done it yet. So I stood up and pitched the idea.”

They approached Wake Forest about launching a larger, permanent portal on the town’s website, which went live in December. Though the current offering is limited, more data sets will be added over time, said Town Manager Kip Padgett.

“It helps citizens know what’s going on in their area,” Padgett said.

Open data “can be freely used, modified, and shared by anyone for any purpose” and must be provided in an accessible format, according to OpenDefinition.org, a website that outlines principles for defining the term. Additionally, the data must be provided in an accessible format so that people can understand and use it more easily.

The Triangle is ground zero for open data.

Jason Hare, who works at OpenDataSoft and helped develop portals for Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill

“Data is a public asset,” said Jason Hare, who works for software company OpenDataSoft and helped develop portals for Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill. “It starts a conversation, and it solves problems. It also reduces friction between the government and the governed.”

Hare, who frequently advises the White House on data-related topics, said the Triangle’s approach to open data is an example for cities and towns across the United States to draw on. Citizens can use the data to find information and recognize problems, he said.

“The Triangle is ground zero for open data,” Hare said.

On Raleigh’s website, data.raleighnc.gov, people can thumb through more than 300 data sets and 900 graphics. Between 1,500 and 2,000 people visit the site every month. Last year, the city won a $35,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to improve its open data website and was selected for Bloomberg Philanthropies’ “What Works Cities” program. During the program, consultants worked with Raleigh to improve its use of data.

Jason Hibbets, project manager at Red Hat and captain of Code for Raleigh, wrote a book, “The foundation for an open source city,” using Raleigh as a case study.

Jason Hibbets, project manager at Red Hat and captain of Code for Raleigh, wrote a book, “The foundation for an open source city,” using Raleigh as a case study.

Raleigh’s City Council has advocated for open data and allocated funding for its website. Several coding groups, like Girl Develop It and Code for Raleigh, have pushed for portals and events – two factors that have contributed to the availability and accessibility of government data in the Triangle, Hibbets said.

Durham’s open data portal averages about 6,000 page views every month. The most popular data sets include bicycle crashes and crime reports, said Greg Marrow, the county’s chief information officer, in an email.

“Feedback has been excellent,” Marrow said. “Users have appreciated the city and county joining forces to launch a common platform and portal for access to city and county data.”

Beginning stages

Despite governments in the Triangle and across the U.S. launching open data programs, Americans are still in the initial stages of using what’s provided, according to a Pew Research survey from 2014. They typically search for simple things, such as the hours of a public park or how to renew their driver’s license.

Though government data has become more available and accessible, people have mixed feelings about whether initiatives will have any effect. The majority of those surveyed said open data will make government officials more accountable and help journalists cover their activities, but didn’t think open data would result in better decisions by government or give citizens an opportunity to affect government actions.

Hare disagrees. As a local example of open data shaping public policy, he mentioned an issue between Raleigh city officials and charities that happened in 2013. Several organizations said they were threatened with arrest for distributing food to the homeless in Moore Square after police began enforcing a rule requiring permits to hand out food in city parks. At the time, Hare was working for the City of Raleigh and met with both sides to come up with a solution: an interactive map.

Using the map, charities could register for time slots to hand out food at city parks. City officials could track where and when they were operating, using data from the map, and remove them from the program if they received complaints about debris or sanitation issues.

Both parties were satisfied.

“They went from incensed to delighted,” Hare said. “It made things more efficient. It was a huge victory. That’s the power of open data.”

Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler

Check it out

To view your city’s open data portal:

Raleigh: data.raleighnc.gov

Durham: opendurham.nc.gov

Cary: data.townofcary.org

Chapel Hill: chapelhillopendata.org

Wake Forest: data2.wakeforestnc.opendata.arcgis.com