Open Data Across Government Lines: Advice from Durham, NC

Durham City and County decided to open data together as a part of their commitment to community.

Open data has many benefits for governments and communities: providing new channels to engage residents and community groups, increasing government transparency, and improving internal efficiency through data sharing to name a few (shameless plug – check out the GovEx Open Data page to see more). But often important data is scattered across different agencies, jurisdictions, and levels of government, making it difficult for users to access all the data they want.

To tackle this challenge the City of Durham and County of Durham in North Carolina came together to take a unique approach to open data in their jurisdiction: a joint open data initiative. The City and County publish their data on the same open data portal and share administrative duties to give stakeholders inside and outside government one unified place to find local government data in the community. There are other examples of regional open data portals, including Open Data Philly and Open Colorado among others, but few have integrated their publishing and processes as deeply as Durham. Taking this approach can be challenging administratively and not knowing where to start can deter initiatives from happening.

We sat down with leaders in Durham to discuss their approach to cross-jurisdictional open data management and get advice for governments looking to go down the same path. Below is a summary of our phone interview with Kerry Goode and Greg Marrow (Chief Information Officers for the City and County of Durham respectively). We edited this for length and clarity, with the goal of providing an operational perspective on the process of launching a joint open data initiative. Kerry and Greg provide great detail in what makes their joint open data initiative work, including:

  • setting up formal governance structures,
  • using a Memorandum of Understanding,
  • working with outside stakeholders like consultants and community groups, and
  • gaining political and administrative leadership support.

Q&A

Why did you decide to open data?  What were the goals for the project?

Kerry: For us, listening to the community was the start. Our local Code for America brigade Code for Durham (CfD) reached out to the city and county and made a case for the value of opening up data. That allowed us to focus on the value of allowing citizens and businesses to use public data in a more effective way. CfD also reached out to Council members and got them talking and thinking about it. This built momentum and support for continuing to push the work forward.

Greg: I agree with Kerry and would add that we were also were focused on the overall push for more transparency both nationwide and here in Durham. The open data portal is a great way to address that issue while also taking the lead from the CfD folks in our community.

Why a joint initiative between Durham City and County?

Greg: We had a lot of discussions about this internally. Generally having county and city data in one location just makes sense to provide value to residents, which is the biggest factor. It also helped us reduce cost by sharing responsibilities.

Kerry: City and county have a background of working together, especially in areas where we have joint departments including inspections, planning, and GIS. We built on that tradition of collaborating. It’s not a brand new idea, which helped leverage the tradition of partnering and get support from Senior Management.

How was work divided and how will you continue to partner moving forward?

Greg: We worked very closely together with a one organization, one team approach. We have a great partnership with City and County and would recommend other cities and counties to take the approach of sharing responsibilities.

Kerry: The development of a formal Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to define policy and governance structure was key, even though both organizations have a history of working together. Engaging our government attorneys was critical to making this work. They defined a framework to help us split costs and responsibilities and know who was responsible for what.

Greg: Absolutely, the MOU was key. At some point in phase 2, we will probably have some sort of governance committee with representation from departments across both organizations. Then this committee will drive what we publish.

What challenges had to be overcome in launching the portal? How did you work to overcome these challenges?

Greg: Developing a joint open data policy that worked for both the city and county was one, as attorneys on each side had different perspectives on how to structure a joint program. We were able to work through that because of leadership commitment and willingness to be flexible when needed. We also hired an outside consultant who provided key advice on the concepts of open data and public perspectives.

Kerry: Leadership was the most important. The executive support we received helped us get across the finish line and have the tools we needed to get the joint portal launched. In addition, we worked very closely with our vendor for the portal to make sure that all our business needs could be met and that the look, feel, and usability of the portal was right.

How did you engage programmatic and technical staff in launching the open data portal?

Kerry: We had a lot of conversations with business units to see how much participation they would have. They are busy and they set their priorities separately and this may not be one of them. Building open data into departmental work along with the city strategic plan will be our plan to integrate departments moving forward and get them to see the internal value.

Any advice for other cities as they plan to open data in the future?

Kerry: We approached the project from the perspective of not knowing exactly how we want to do it and understanding that we’d be flexible with what was needed. We did some discovery and planning and were flexible enough to change moving forward which was very helpful. Plus, you need to have the initiative to do this in both jurisdictions, built on trust and relationships with each other, to make it easier to work on a collaborative project.

Greg: A joint initiative for open data must be based on strong relationships and leadership commitment. But it’s also important to have a MOU, policy, and governance structure to make things clear. You really need all those things to really make it work. Finally, having an open data subject matter expert help you with the process and walk you through the steps can let you really focus on the value that the community will receive from open data instead of just opening the data with no users in mind.

If you are a government or stakeholder interested in pursuing a regional approach to open data, have other great stories about collaborating to open data, or just want to learn more, get in touch with us at govex@jhu.edu.