Elon is a small town, tucked away on the edge (not quite the middle) of nowhere outside the larger city of Burlington. After a drowsy ride straight up U.S. Route 220 and Interstate 73 through rain and some ice, the charmingly British voice of Amanda Moss’s GPS indicated our destination would soon be on our left. But you wouldn’t know it, glancing out the fogged windows over a bleak scene of neglected fields, country mile homes and abandoned buildings constructed around the turn of the 20th century. And then, everything changed.
Suddenly we were at a crossroads, with a modern traffic signal and one of those fancy Lowe’s Foods on the right. A Kangaroo Express station loomed in the near distance, and there appeared groomed sidewalks, proud city houses and youthful figures waiting on the corners for the crossing signs to change in their favor as they shivered in the cold rain. You know college students: they wear flip flops and shorts no matter the weather. T-shirts and decorative but impractically thin hoodies are as close to layering as you’re likely to find.
In contrast, RCDJ crew were all warm and dressed for the unseasonably arctic weather. An immaculate college campus unfolded on either side of us, and we found a place to park. We were heading to Elon University’s Lakeside Hall for the North Carolina Open Government Coalition’s Sunshine Day 2014, an assembly of advocates from across the state who are committed to the practice of open government.
In the keynote, delivered by Waldo Jaquith, an important distinction was made between information and data. Information, he explained, is a document that can be printed out and dispersed, or a public notice in a local newspaper; but open data should be 1) publicly accessible, 2) readable by software, 3) free of cost and 4) in a format that makes it reusable and redistributable. In other words, North Carolina does not provide open data at this time. It lacks the means.
While residents can approach government agencies and request copies of public records, the process requires the use of government resources such as personnel, paper and copiers and often a great deal of time. There are instances in which records have been requested, only to have the request denied — either outright or less conspicuously by the deliberate lengthening of time taken to collect the data, and fees assessed for the work involved in procuring it.
Jaquith’s presentation should be taken with more than a mere grain of salt. Along with his reputation as an open government activist and political pundit, he’s the founder of the U.S. Open Data Institute, which has a chapter in North Carolina (www.theodinc.org) whose purpose according to its website is to “…convene world-class experts to collaborate, incubate, nurture and mentor new ideas, and promote innovation. We enable anyone to learn and engage with open data, and empower our teams to help others through professional coaching and mentoring.”
The obstacle to usable open data is a lack of people dedicated to its aggregation, and a centralized and easily accessible digital location for finding it. Like many states, North Carolina lags behind those few that are making strides in their efforts to solve open data problems.
But one thing that works is the development of local coalitions of independent open data activists willing to invest the time and talent needed to bridge the gaps between taxpayers and the information their tax dollars pay for. What I walked away with can summed up here: North Carolina has promises to keep, and miles to go before it sleeps.
Staff writer Melonie Fromer attended the Sunshine Day seminar on Monday at Elon University as a member of the N.C. Press Association.