The Citizen Experience Takes Center Stage in Raleigh
Located in the world-renowned Research Triangle, Raleigh, North Carolina enjoys proximity to some of the world’s best technology resources, including research institutions, innovative companies, and a tech-savvy populace.
It is these citizens that the city leaders look to for collaboration and inspire them to make Raleigh’s open data initiative one of the most innovative in the world.
Citizens and City Collaborate
Throughout Raleigh’s history, locals with a passion for technology have reached out to the City with ideas on how to improve the quality of life in the region. By 2011, a particular group of activists was especially interested in getting the city to embrace an open government strategy. In fact, many of them joined together to form a local Code for America (CfA) brigade, called Code for Raleigh, promoting the use of public data to address local issues.
City Council member Bonner Gaylord worked closely with this group and, in early 2012, Gaylord introduced an Open Source Resolution to Raleigh’s City Council. The resolution recommended the creation of a new page on the City of Raleigh website to share public data. Gaylord proposed that the new site would give citizens the opportunity use public information however they see fit. As he reminded the council at the time, “It’s their data; they bought it and paid for it.”
The resolution passed and the City of Raleigh’s Information Technology Department, led by Chief Information and Community Relations Officer Gail M. Roper, explored how to implement the website. With the help of their CfA brigade and other local IT experts, the City did research and decided to work with Socrata.
“Socrata offers more than just technology. It offers a strategy and all kinds of support. It’s not just a product, it’s a whole philosophy,” says Roper. The IT team considered using an open source option for Raleigh’s open data portal but recognized that implementing and maintaining it would require multiple developers working full time, plus extra time and energy to manage them. Also, the team wanted visualization tools and application programming interfaces (APIs) ready for use, rather than building them from scratch.
Raleigh’s Socrata-powered open data website, data.raleighnc.gov, went live in March of 2013.
Community Events Drive Participation
Once the new site was established, Roper and local open data advocates focused on raising awareness. “There was a need to educate the entire community on the value of open data,” says Roper.
With community engagement in mind, in April 2013 Raleigh hosted “NC DataJam.” The event brought Raleigh citizens together to find solutions to health, energy, and education issues. It was the first-ever regional DataJam, created in collaboration with U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park and other technology leaders at the White House. After NC DataJam, more than 10 teams committed to work in the following 90 days to prepare presentations for entry into the Raleigh DataPalooza planned for September.
Meanwhile, in May, “CityCamp NC” invited anyone interested in improving the city to gather for an “unconference,” where teams would use data to create solutions to issues in any area of government.
The momentum in Raleigh continued to build in June when, on National Civic Hacking Day, HUB Raleigh, Rally Dev, Technology Tank, Triangle Wiki, and Code for Raleigh joined forces to host a regional civic hackathon, where anyone from the community could work with data, and enjoy snacks and camaraderie.
Finally, in September 2013, during Raleigh Entrepreneurship Week, “NC DataPalooza” featured judges from the technology community to decide which team from NC DataJam would receive funding to start a company around their idea. The teams had clever uses for data, including an energy efficiency team that wanted to provide real-time water monitoring for landlords who pay their residential tenants' water bills.
“The Parking App,” a smartphone application, took top honors and the opportunity to present at the CED Tech Venture conference later that month. The app not only gives information about available parking, but also lists price information, payment options, and directions from a selected parking spot to your final destination and back.
With all of the momentum and activity around the open data program, Raleigh began to receive recognition. By August, Raleigh earned a 2013 Web 2.0 Award from the Public Technology Institute for providing access to data that could be easily merged, analyzed, and compiled by anyone.
The City also earned a Digital Cities Award from the Center for Digital Government for using technology to promote more collaboration with its citizens and better services through technology.
Vision and Leadership
In the midst of all of this success and recognition, CIO Gail M. Roper stays focused on the citizen experience.
“We want to elevate government as a go-to place for our citizens. We want to develop a good relationship with our citizens so they feel that they have gotten the attention and the information that they need,” says Roper. And, she says that one of the greatest assets a municipal government can offer is its information. She wants data collection to be an easy, self-service experience.
“Helping citizens use data to answer their own questions benefits municipalities,” says Roper. “We want to have multiple channels available to the community, anytime, anywhere, any place.”
Roper and her team plan to work more closely with Code for America and local groups to create new opportunities for collaboration between the City and it citizens. And, they’re already working with nearby counties and cities to share data and use it improve life in the region. And, through it all, Roper stays determined to keep citizens' needs top of mind.
“There has to be a channel for a sit down dialogue where citizens talk about what’s important to them. We learn a lot when we engage with citizens,” says Roper.