For Cary, open data a low priority this year

akenney@newsobserver.comMay 22, 2013 

— Town Councilwoman Lori Bush wants Cary to make its data more accessible to the public, but she’s running against town staff’s budget concerns.

In two council work sessions, Bush has complained that the town has dedicated no funding this year to fulfilling the suggestions of the Technology Task Force, a committee that she initiated. The group called for a broad slate of changes, but the focus now is on the increasingly popular concept of “open data.”

At a meeting last week, Bush pushed for a “pilot” program for open data, suggesting that the town could bring on a contractor or test software that would make its massive municipal databases available for public use.

With open data available, developers can create apps such as RGreenways, which tracks local greenways, or programs to monitor anything from traffic to crime.

Open data isn’t free data, though. Raleigh voted last year to put $50,000 toward an open data manager and a “data portal.” Cary doesn’t have the money or staff in its current budget for such a project, town staff told the council.

“Whether it’s outsourced or not, staff thinks that we will have to have a considerable amount of staff input. Somebody will have to be managing aspects of it,” he said.

And town staff discounted the idea of a temporary pilot, saying that changes down the line would frustrate developers who come to depend on Cary’s data.

As she had a week earlier, Bush argued that technology initiatives deserved more attention in the budget, again pointing out that the town is dedicating $110,000 for public art at a new fire station.

“Technology is something that impacts each and every single citizen. Whether they’re going to the website or using their mobile phone, 99 percent of our citizens have Internet access,” she said. “We’re missing out on key citizen engagement. We’re going to continue to get behind.”

Other council members were open to the idea of open data but loathe to spend money on it yet. The addition of an ongoing expense is more burdensome than a one-time cost, such as public art, said Councilwoman Gale Adcock.

“We’re talking 30-some thousand dollars a year,” said Councilman Don Frantz. “ ... Anything we do, we’re going to have to take from somewhere else.”

Councilman Ed Yerha said he wanted to pursue the project but was dissuaded by staff’s warnings about the program’s cost, while Councilman Jack Smith said the town’s budget was too tight.

Bush declined to put the matter to a vote, saying she knew better than to spit in the wind.

But even without funding, Cary’s programmers and tech-types are pursuing their own government projects. The town now is home to a branch of Code for America, a national nonprofit.

The Cary “brigade” hopes to enlist locals who will convert Cary’s public data into useful apps and programs for residents. Its kickoff meeting is 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 28, at the Cary Chamber of Commerce.

Kenney: 919-460-2608 or

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