Building community around Durham’s open data


Last week, I traveled to Durham, North Carolina to participate in a panel discussion on community engagement and open data for Civic Spark Day. The conference brought together Durham’s residents, local technologists, city and county staff to discuss how the city’s open data can be used to meet the community’s needs. The event was the latest element of the city’s work using open data to make Durham a great place to live, work and play.

My path to joining on this panel started back in March of this year, when I met Sam McClenney, Durham’s data program manager, at the second annual What Works Cities Summit in New York.

Back in March, Durham had just been selected to participate in What Works Cities, with a focus on using city and county data to improve processes within government agencies. Durham, like many cities, has been evolving its thinking about open data. The city was already making data open and available as part of its routine work. Its next challenge was helping residents apply their data to use for community needs.

As part of that effort, Durham started working with Sunlight’s Open Cities team in May of this year to make their open data as accessible as possible. We reviewed their open data policy to make sure it was up-to-date with current best practices. We also helped Durham put their policy online for public comment, and worked with them to establish a system to do that every year to remain accountable to residents on the project.

Civic Spark Day is one of the ways Durham is incorporating community members’ feedback into its ongoing work opening data. The event was designed to bring together residents, city staff, Durham’s thriving startup and tech industry (as well as open government advocates like me) to highlight the successes of Durham’s open data work thus far and identify what needs to come next.

On our panel, I shared Sunlight’s experiences working with cities across the country to develop open data as a tool for community engagement and collective problem solving. With my great co-panelists, Eric Jackson from the City of Asheville and Erin Parish from the City of Durham, we focused on various aspects of what makes an open data ecosystem, where the exchange of information between the city and community would yield positive results.

Making sure the city’s work incorporates the needs of all Durham residents was one of the recurring themes of the day, as we also discussed how to make open data and civic tech more inclusive. This meant not only diversity of people who are doing the coding but also in the city’s strategies for who they engage in the community, and making sure it’s not just those who are most comfortable online.

From what I’ve heard, community engagement is one of the city’s biggest priorities moving forward. Many of the conversations I heard at Civic Spark were about how to best understand what Durham residents need and create products that reflect that.

One great example of this work in action is the Durham School Navigator, a website that Code for Durham developed to help parents easily identify the city’s school options. The website features a map of all the Durham public schools, including charter and magnet schools, ands information about each of the schools, to help families to decide which option is best for them.

Organizing data around Durham School Navigator is also leading to possible policy changes. One idea that we discussed at the Civic Spark Day was for the developers of the site to list 10 open datasets that every school should provide, and then go to the school board to require all schools to make this information available and to make this information more uniform. The end result could be codifying an education public data standard. Events like Civic Spark Day show what is possible when opening data to the public online is combined with dedicated community engagement. The City of Durham is creating a social ecosystem of people who recognize how civic uses of technology can contribute to efforts to improve the city, including coders, city staff, and community advocates. Officials, advocates and activists are working proactively together to go out to where other people in the community are and find ways to solve problems with them.

We hope the city continues to grow this thoughtful ecosystem of people innovating and improving Durham’s public data disclosures, to better understand how to serve residents’ needs by engaging and connecting with them online and in person.