When someone asks me where I live, I tell them downtown Durham, but the more accurate answer would be, “The Triangle.” 

I may reside in downtown Durham, but I commute daily to downtown Raleigh for work and scoot over to Chapel Hill at least once a week for church or to visit friends. I also lived, worked and went to school in Chapel Hill/Carrboro for nine years. With a foot in all these places, I feel a deep sense of connection to all and genuinely care about their future in a way I wouldn’t had I not lived or worked in each.

Jason Hare, Durham’s new open data consultant shares my sense of connection to both individual cities within the Triangle and the Triangle as a whole. He lives in Morrisville, previously worked for seven years at Durham Public Schools, and most recently commuted to Raleigh for two years to lead the “Open Raleigh” initiative as Raleigh’s Open Data Program Manager. Despite loving Raleigh, a city he considers a second home, Hare is very excited to return to Durham—he’s always had a special interest in the city and its people. 

Perhaps more excited than Hare for his return to Durham is Durham itself. January 22, the city and county issued a joint press release to announce that Hare would lead their first-ever open data project. 

Durham’s excitement is warranted—Hare is a hot commodity and heavily respected by the local and international “open data” community. His lengthy resume—he’s lead open data projects from Raleigh to Ireland while simultaneously starting his own open data consulting company (BalefFire Global) and NC’s Open Data Institute (ODI) Node—is impressive. But it’s the commitment to transparency (he says, “Every scrap of this will be transparent”), collaboration and exuberance for open data that has garnered respect from the open data community. 

Hare’s reason for returning to Durham is actually pretty specific. When I caught up with him a few weeks ago and asked what attracted him to the project, his answer boiled down to one thing—the people. 

Hare strongly believes open data has the power and potential to improve citizens’ lives, and particularly the lives of Durham citizens. He believes that open data will enable local governments to better allocate resources and plan and implement social sustainability strategies, and that work in Durham could eventually lead to collaboration on a regional open data strategy.

Several groups have already used data from the Open Raleigh portal—the media for data to supplement sources for stories, companies and investors to plan for and assess the risk of potential investments and city departments for measuring their performance. The portal has empowered citizens (often through Datapalooza or Code for Raleigh events) to use data to build applications, map trends and learn how their local government is utilizing tax dollars.  

Open Data in the Bull City

While behind its Raleigh and Wake County neighbors, Durham is entering the open data field ahead of most of the country. U.S. states, cities, and counties have been slow to jump on the open data bandwagon—early adopters and leaders in the field like the Open Data Institute (ODI) of the United Kingdom, hail from places outside of the U.S. To date, 39 states and just 46 counties and cities have established open data sites while 163 International countries have established sites. So as long as no other project beats Durham to the punch, its open data site will be the 47th from a U.S. city or county.

According to Technology Tank, the collaborative initiative has been in the works since April 2013, though the partnership was officially announced November 11, 2014. The governments promised that data would be available in a few months’ time, with a projected launch date of late summer for the site. 

Like most open data projects, the initiative will include a portal where data is posted and users can view or download it. The types of data and exact data sets are still under discussion, but Hare says the data will align with and support both the county and city’s respective strategic plans. Some is ready to go—like sanitation inspections at restaurants and health violations—and will be released when the portal goes live or shortly after. However, like Raleigh’s iterative approach to releasing data, Durham will post and update different data sets as they are compiled and made available by city and county staff. 

Comparing Durham and Raleigh

In many ways, Raleigh’s open data experiences paved the way for Durham. With Hare at the helm of both projects, we can expect similarities between the initiatives, particularly his dedication to creating a product that reflects Durham’s goals. Hare helped Raleigh, “execute a well-thought out strategy for implementation—taking the right steps at the right time that were right for Raleigh,” says Jason Hibbets, a Red Hat project manager who collaborated with Hare as Code for Raleigh’s Brigade Captain and interviewed him for opensource.com

Using open source tools, Hare codes and develops his own open data software and confirms the Durham portal will be built similarly to Raleigh’s, with the same word processing system and flow, design patterns and methodology. He insists, however, that is where the similarities end. He says the Durham initiative differs significantly from Raleigh’s Open Data Portal in its purpose and execution. 

Durham’s initiative is unique in two ways. First, the initiative is a collaborative effort between the city and the county—most other government organizations with open data projects (including Raleigh and Wake County) open up the city’s or the county’s data, but not typically both and typically not together (with one exception being San Francisco). 

This matters because cities and counties have different functions and, therefore, different but sometimes complementary data sets. For example, in North Carolina, counties house the sheriff’s office while cities run police departments. Both serve different functions and have different responsibilities but have a common goal, to ensure the safety of residents. If combined, the data can give a more holistic picture of crime and public safety in Durham. The second unique aspect of Durham’s initiative is its focus on social sustainability, which Hare says enables the city to work toward “solving immediate on-the-ground problems.” 

While the Open Raleigh portal initially provided business and economic data to foster business growth and development, Durham’s portal will open with quality of life indicators. 

Hare says, “The data sets we’ll be mining will be more about communicating with the community and thinking through how can we use data to better deliver government services to those in need and those at greatest risk.” 

For example, Hare says he’d “love to have our data speak to where there are income disparities and digital divides.” He would also like to see the data bridge any disconnects between the organizations that serve citizens and the citizens’ actual needs and wants, a problem he remembers encountering during his time at Durham public schools. 

But in addition to the quality of life indicator data, Hare says the portal will also contain useful data for entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses—like the average amount of time it takes to get different government-issued permits and licenses. Hare says permit data is typically one of the most valuable sets for startups and the business community at large. Knowing the average permit acquisition timeline, for example, helps businesses and entrepreneurs account for the time needed to acquire permits as they map their business plans.

Change in Attitudes

One distinct difference between the Raleigh and Durham deployments is timing. Hare notes that government agencies are less reluctant to open up their data than they were two and a half years ago. “When we started in Raleigh, we had to sell the idea that opening your data is not a terrible thing to do,” he says. But Durham has the advantage of being able to see the positive impact open data has had in Raleigh. 

Hare is modest about his contribution to this shift in attitude towards open data, but Hibbets doesn’t beat around the bush. Hare’s involvement was “critical to the success of the program,” Hibbets says, adding that Hare was able to “dispel myths about open data to key stakeholders” and “get the stakeholders on the same page and prove the value that open data can bring to various communities: citizens, other city departments, businesses, and entrepreneurs.” 

Hare has been championing open data’s benefits long before the rest of us even knew there was such a thing as open data. In his role as the web service manager at Durham Public Schools from 2005 to 2012, he began opening data in support of a proposed referendum and managed web services and analyzed user behavior. In 2012, he met Ireland’s Open Knowledge Foundation Ambassador Denis Parfenov and began working with him, and eventually the Irish government, to create the first national open data portal. 

In 2013, he founded North Carolina’s ODI node to, “catalyze the evolution of open data culture to create economic, environmental, and social value.” And through initiatives such as NC Datapalooza, Hare continues to champion open data and its benefits in the Triangle. 

What’s Next?

Eventually, Hare and Hibbets would like to see full regions collaborate together to tackle open data projects. 

“I think the real benefit of having open data is when cities, counties and states can collaborate to make data sets seamless to their users,” Hibbets says. 

But regional collaborations are notoriously hard to make happen for local governments charged with serving their individual constituencies and their respective needs. Precedent for collaboration among the Triangle’s local governments exists, as evidenced by projects like the recent North Carolina Next Generation Network (NCNGN) project to bring gigabit Internet to our towns or organizations like the Research Triangle Regional Partnership, which promotes economic development regionally. 

But they are the exception, not the norm. In addition, North Carolina’s rural counties tend to have few financial resources and limited IT support and are often unable to keep up with their day-to-day work, much less add additional tasks and projects. A regional collaboration to open up data could greatly benefit North Carolina’s rural regions, as they could pool and share resources, but might be hard to conjure buy-in to begin with.

While we wait for comprehensive regional approaches in the Triangle and throughout the state, Hare, Hibbets and other open data advocates and experts will work to foster an ecosystem in the Triangle that supports understanding, deployment and use of open data region-wide. 

In Durham, that starts with your input. If you live or work anywhere in Durham County and have ideas, want to offer feedback, or have specific data sets you want the portal to contain, Hare is available for a call or cup of coffee. 

If you’re an entrepreneur or work in a startup, this is your chance to make sure the data that will help power your business is included in Durham’s open data portal. In Raleigh, Hare issued the same invitation, and as testimony to his earnestness, he went on 200+ coffee dates with Raleigh residents. If you don’t have feedback but just want to stay informed, a wiki page will be live soon detailing the project and its goals, so stay tuned. 

When I asked Hare what success would look like for this effort, he paused and said, “This is kind of out there a little bit, but, I would like to see the Durham community see open data as their vehicle to communicate with their government leaders and organizations.” 

And with Hare’s dedication to open data we just might see that happen, even if it is “out there a little bit.”