Raleigh, N.C., Drives Openness From All Angles

Open data and open source software could make Raleigh open for more business.

by / February 1, 2012
Downtown Raleigh, January 2012. Photo courtesy N.C. Dept. of Transportation

Transitioning from proprietary software to an open source platform is becoming more common among local and state governments as officials realize the potential costs savings and citizens demand a more transparent government. Raleigh, N.C., is one of the governments making the jump after taking first steps recently on an open source initiative.

Raleigh CIO Gail Roper said she feels confident the transition will help the city improve efficiencies and lower costs.

“There are opportunities to use open source solutions that have been tried and true in other organizations,” said Roper. “From that aspect we could capitalize on solutions that have been built in other municipalities.”

The Open Source Government Resolution was approved in early January by the Technology and Communications Committee, a group of city councilors created late last year.

The committee proposes to create a new page on the city of Raleigh website to share city data, such as budget information, map data and public art data. It also plans to make it easier for open source software companies to bid on city projects.

But before any official decisions are made about what data will be available, much more education is needed, said Roper. “We are very much in the stages now of better understanding what kind of government and skill requirement we have to have in place to work in our organization,” she said.

The overall goal, Roper said, is to better manage back-end infrastructure. Consolidating server resources, improving the overall flow of information and lowering software licensing costs are also advantages that Roper anticipates. “We need to make sure we understand what’s in the market, the readiness of the solutions and if those solutions will be appropriate for our organization,” she said.

Raleigh’s IT department added a statement about including open source software in the procurement process. The new procurement plan will be broader in terms of looking at both open source and commercial software and solutions and defining requirements, said Roper.

Community Effort

During the last couple of years, there's been a push from citizens for more open government in Raleigh, particularly around an effort called CityCamp, said Councilor Bonner Gaylord, who chairs the technology committee. "It was really the spark for our community, giving citizens a way to express that interest," he said.

Last year the first CityCamp Raleigh event brought together a group of residents committed to finding a way to improve the transparency of their local government. CityCamp encourages open source solutions for communities across the nation. Organizers of the Raleigh event awarded $5,000 to the group with the most promising project.

The principles of openness align with Raleigh’s values, said Gaylord. “We are an academic community, a community that’s diverse, very willing to accept various opinions, interested in others' input — that’s what open source is about,” he said. The local technology community is a major part of the city’s learning process.

Another advantage for Raleigh is the mayor’s enthusiasm about the open source project and a City Council that’s eager to talk about open source products and engage citizens. And having a liaison for the citizens to direct questions makes the process run more smoothly, said Roper.

Bringing in Business

Red Hat, one of the country’s largest producers of open source software, has been a main resource for Raleigh throughout the process. The company recently moved its headquarters from North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus to downtown Raleigh.

Officials are counting on Red Hat’s new location to act as a "cornerstone that attracts and fosters other companies and small businesses," Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane said at a press conference.

Red Hat Chief Executive Jim Whitehurst said at the same press conference that he has already persuaded another open-source software development company to open a 12-person office in Raleigh. He wouldn’t name the firm.

Red Hat, which produces open source Linux software, plans to transfer more than 750 workers downtown and is eligible to receive more than $15 million in state incentives if it adds 540 workers over nine years.

Lauren Katims Nadeau

Lauren Katims previously served as a staff writer and contributing writer for Government Technology magazine.