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City and County of Durham, N.C., Launch Joint Open Data Initiative

The city and county will share both costs and a common platform and portal, with the goal of stimulating business development and creating new community services.

The city and county of Durham, N.C., are working jointly on a single open data initiative that will lay the groundwork for residents to access and use the wealth of public data available between the two government organizations.

The city and county will share costs as well as a common platform and portal. The project is part of a combined effort by both organizations to reach into the community to bring about business development and new community benefits and services.

Kerry Goode, CIO of the Durham Technology Solutions Department, said that while city and county public data have always been publicly available, open data will make it easier to use by developers, marketers, community enrichment agencies and the general public.

“We think we’re doing something a bit different from the typical open data project,” said Goode. "We're looking at this as a tool that the entire community can use to foster positive change within the entire area. We're looking at it more holistically.”

“We're putting the citizens first with this initiative,” said Greg Marrow, CIO for Durham County’s Information Services and Technology Department. “When it comes to data, our citizens don't really care whether it's the city of Durham or the county of Durham. They just want one place to go to find information. We believe that this approach speaks directly to what we're hearing from the citizens of Durham -- they want an easy way to gain access to data and they want transparency.”

Plans are currently under way for a joint work plan and project framework, with a site launch date of summer 2015. Durham will use the OpenDataSoft platform, but they intend to focus on process first.

“We want to focus on how to engage citizens before we focus on the technology,” said Jason Hare, director of Open Data for BaleFire Global, which is helping the city and county implement the initiative. “The technology is kind of the last thing we need to worry about. The first part is the work flow, the process, how to engage people and how to guarantee their privacy.”

The city and county will also focus on improving their data before moving forward. 

“The goal is by the end of March to have at least published improved data sets that are beneficial to the citizens of Durham,” Marrow said. “Because this is also about ensuring our data is valuable.”

Hare said that as the city and county locate data, they will look for anomalies, clean the data up, and make sure their data sets are beneficial and relevant to the community.

“If you look at some other cities, they seem to have taken a rather shotgun approach to posting data,” said Hare. “It’s often of variable quality and the refresh cycles just aren't there. The city and the county of Durham are making a concerted effort and putting some real time and hard work into making sure the data sets they release are of high quality and that they are accurate, timely and relevant.”

Once the process and the technology have been nailed down and the data cleaned up, the city and county plan to encourage citizens to be creative and to come to the table with new ideas for ways to solve problems through the use of their data. The initiative will also emphasize social sustainability projects and ideas. 

“Social sustainability is one of the big issues we want to tackle with this,” said Hare. 

Hare said in his previous role working for Raleigh, N.C., he helped build an app that coordinates outreach for homeless people. 

“We put our data out for outreach organizations to coordinate with each other and with the police to efficiently distribute outreach supplies and care to the homeless,” he said. “That was just one little thing we did that made a huge difference. Imagine what the city and the county of Durham together can do to solve some of our social problems using data.”

Goode said she and Marrow recently presented their plan to city department directors.

“After the presentation, the fire chief came to me and said, ‘I would love to publish my data in the open data platform because I want the community to give me some insight that I can take and make the Fire Department better,’” she said. “I thought, ‘That department director really gets it.’ A lot of our data can be used to provide better insight for the entire community.”

“This is not just about coming out with another piece of technology,” added Hare. “This is really about empowering the citizens of Durham.”

Justine Brown is an award-winning veteran journalist who specializes in technology and education. Email her at justinebrown@comcast.net.
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