An interview with Michael Schnuerle, Data Officer, Louisville Metro Government
In 2011, the Louisville Metro Government launched its Open Data Portal. There were two main reasons for the launch. One was the election of Mayor Greg Fischer, who was determined to better use data to drive performance improvement and transparency in government. The second was pressure from the local civic tech community, which had lobbied the metro government for years to make its data publicly accessible. One of the driving forces behind this effort was Michael Schnuerle, who cofounded the Civic Data Alliance, Louisville’s Code for America brigade. In November 2016, Schnuerle left his job at a tech start-up to become the first Louisville Metro Data Officer. I spoke to him about apps, hackathons, and what it’s like to go from lobbying the government about open data to being in charge of it.
How has it been transitioning from start-ups to city government?
It’s been strange! I’ve worked for start-ups, for myself, for large companies — and government feels most like a Fortune 500. It’s very different from working for a start-up. There are even more rules [in government] on what you should be doing than if you’re working for a large company. As an entrepreneur, I could do almost anything at any time very quickly. Now it’s more about consensus-building, and following the right process. To get things done, it’s so important to have the right people on board.
There are now over 200 datasets on Louisville’s Open Data portal. Who uses them, and why?
There are four main groups. Businesses are one. Large companies — including Yelp and Waze — and start-ups, like OpportunitySpace. They started in Louisville by using our vacant property data, and then expanded to other cities. The Glass Capitol is a nonprofit start-up, which also started in Louisville. It helps people to find their elected officials and see their performance.
Another group is civic hackers, who are interested in this as a side project. We’re aware of some projects such as LouieWatch, which is based on the open source code from EveryBlock.com. It’s a news feed for your neighborhood block: it ingests government information, and tells you what’s happening locally — news articles and reported crimes are aggregated on a timeline.
A third is journalists. When crimes are reported in the local press, it will often include an analysis of area crimes based on data from the portal. They know now to go there to get data for their story rather than contacting somebody — it saves time, which is one of the benefits of open data.
The last group is actually ourselves. Once we can get data out of departments’ source systems and onto the portal, those same departments start using what was previously cumbersome to access. Additionally, other internal departments can now use this data on demand for their own work.
How does the metro government use all this open data to drive citizen engagement?
We have held a number of hackathons to engage city residents with open data. This February, 80 people came to our first hackathon in LouieLab, which is an exciting new collaborative space for the city. The topic was public safety, and the day started with a briefing from the Louisville Metro Police Department to provide context and help the teams to hit the ground running. We had all kinds of projects — including an Alexa [Amazon’s personal assistant] integration that allows you to ask about recent crime in your area along different categories.
Many of our hackathons have actually sparked new projects and even new companies. Two examples are CityVoice and SpeedUp. CityVoice was a partnership between the Civic Data Alliance and the city government, which needed to gather citizen feedback about a long strip of roadwork. The app let people report by text or phone dangerous conditions or what they’d like to see improved.
SpeedUp measures internet speed by provider, by location. The metro government actually uses the data when making policy about digital inclusion, and when talking to providers and prospective providers. We can point providers to where they’re underserving low-income communities, and ask them to fix it.
What are you doing to broaden civic engagement with open data, beyond civic hackers?
Broadening access is an important goal for us. We want to make it easier to use the datasets in our open data portal. At the moment, your only options are to download a spreadsheet or tap the data with an API. You can view some things but it’s still not good. We’re going to improve the visualization tools soon, so people can view the data more easily on the site, and interact with it, rather than having to analyze it themselves.
We also want to get more diversity at our hackathons. It’s a challenge, because they are targeted at the moment to a certain group of people who have an overlap of technical ability and interest. From the outside [as the captain of the Civic Data Alliance], I used to prep projects in advance with nonprofits. For example, a local youth nonprofit wanted to build an online map of indicators about children they were trying to help. During a hackathon, we built a map that they could use both internally and on their website.
Who do you look to for advice and inspiration? Who are your open data heroes?
I admire lots of people in the Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network [a Harvard Kennedy School project convening chief data officers from around the US] — all of them are doing interesting things. It is a great group — they’re all doing exactly what I’m doing but in other cities, so it’s really nice to share knowledge and information.
Aside from the chief data officers in the network, there are many others I admire — civic hackers like Joshua Tauberer and Chris Whong, investigative reporters like BuzzFeed’s Jason Leopold, and 18F fellows such as Mark Headd.
What can other cities learn from Louisville about open data?
One thing Louisville does really well — and this might be my bias! — is cultivating the metro government’s relationship with the civic tech community, entrepreneurs, the coding community, and the maker community. Other cities don’t have that. Sometimes other Code for America brigades will contact me and say, “how do we do what you’ve done in our city?” I think you have to find the right people in the city government, and spend time showing them the value of open data if they don’t know that already.
From the perspective of cities who want to do open data better, I think having designated public-facing staff for open data is important. For example: if someone has a question or a specific request, they can contact me via my official Twitter account, through the open data portal, as well as by e-mail or phone. It’s nice to have that authority, and be the human face for the city’s open data.