Morrisville considers open-data initiative

aramos@newsobserver.comJuly 5, 2013 

TOWN OF MORRISVILLE

— “In 400 feet, turn left.”

For many people, the automated voice of a GPS device is familiar, directing them to destinations.

It’s an example of the public using open data, or government-compiled information, in a practical way.Around the country, some cities are hopping on the open-data bandwagon, and Morrisville could be next.

The idea is to make information such as crime reports, fire calls and building permits easily available to the public and entrepreneurs, who can create applications for smartphones and other mobile devices.

In Raleigh, residents used data to create the free RGreenways app, which allows users to find the nearest greenway and access weather forecasts, said Jason Hare, Raleigh’s open data program manager.

Now Hare, who lives in Morrisville, is working with Town Councilman Steve Rao to get Morrisville involved in an open-data initiative. Hare’s vision is to create a regional open-data portal that spans the Triangle.

Wake County already has some data available on its website. Cary hosted an open-data day in February to allow the public to brainstorm new ideas for uses of information.

Rao has seen firsthand the potential for open data in Morrisville. One resident created an app that lets users see all of the events going on in town.

Morrisville already provides a lot of information on its website. But it’s usually in tidy files made up of information that has already been analyzed.

Open data provides the raw information or statistics so users can interact with it to make their own charts, applications or analyses. That makes the date reusable, Hare said. Picture an Excel document instead of a pie chart.

Morrisville leaders seemed intrigued with the open-data concept last month, but they said they need more information before they decide whether to move forward. A follow-up council discussion is scheduled for August.

Councilman Steve Diehl said he worried about the cost of running an open-data program. He pointed out that Cary recently put off funding an open-data project after estimating it would cost about $30,000 a year to run.

“Open data, while it provides a tremendous value, it’s not free,” Diehl said. “I couldn’t justify the cost. ... I’d like to see more information.”

Hare said Raleigh spends about $50,000 a year for a software program contract, which includes server hosting, maintenance and upgrades. The cost to pay staff is harder to predict, he said.

“Yes, it costs you staff time, but it saves you staff time, too,” Hare said.

Councilman Mark Stohlman said one way to save money might be to piggyback off Raleigh’s program through a partnership.

“There’s a lot of potential here,” Stohlman said. “Especially given where we are in the Triangle. It’s nice to be a part of the cutting edge as much as it didn’t cost us.”

Rao said the next step is to look into the possibility of an open-data pilot.

Opening up the town’s statistics and other information would help make residents’ lives easier and staff more productive, Rao said.

“Citizens can post issues such as a pothole through an app,” Rao said. “It’s not just looking at data on a website, but how can we leverage data to get citizens more engaged? There’s no better place to do it in than Morrisville. There’s no better place where you have the kind of talent we have in a 10-mile radius. (Let’s) turn on the spigot and let citizens do with it as they will.”

Ramos: 919-460-2609

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