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How Computer Hacking Can Improve Louisville's Public Policy

For the third year in a row, Louisville computer programmers and community advocates joined forces to use public information paid for by taxpayers to spur effective public policy.

More than two dozen people—tech industry professionals, students, policymakers—huddled around laptops in offices on Market Street on a Saturday afternoon for a day of “civic hacking."

The purpose was to make public data, usually just numbers on a spreadsheet, useful for the general public.

“Our goal is to free the public data, so that we can do good with it,” said Chris Harrell, one of the co-founders of Louisville’s Civic Data Alliance.

But there's a potential hang-up for the work the group is trying to do.

They need access to the right data before they can make it useful.

This year, the group was working on projects that included connecting Medicaid recipients with doctors and developing an app with local restaurant health ratings, co-founder Michael Schnuerle said.

But Schnuerle said this work depends on the accessibility of open records, which can vary.

“In order to do good with government information, we first need the government information,” he said.

“So, the first hurdle is to get the open data.”

Because they used mostly city data, the group was able to get most of the information they need,  Schnuerle said.

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That is, he said, except for updated property values in Jefferson County from the public valuation administrator's office, which is a state agency.

“The city has a wonderful open data portal,” Schnuerle said. “They are adding more data to it."

He credited Mayor Greg Fischer and Ted Smith, the city's director of civic innovation, for making the information readily available.

But the public isn't assured of having that information long into the future, Schnuerle and Harrell said.

Fischer enacted an executive order in 2013 to make the information accessible to citizens, but the order could easily be reversed by a future mayor.

That’s why Harrell said part of the Civic Data Alliance’s mission now is to get a city ordinance on the books.

“We want to look as away to engage the rest of the Metro Council and have it as an ordinance, so it’s part of Louisville’s law,” he explained. “So, it is something that is abided by in the future and secures that possibility.”

Part of the group’s pitch is showing that they can use this data to help drive effective public policy.

Bret Walker, a software engineer, teamed up with Kentucky Youth Advocates.

He said he’s working on a map that breaks down information about youth by Metro Council district.

“We are working on a project called Kid's Count, it’s actually a national project, and the goal of it is to get good data to policymakers so they can make decisions about the youth within the city,” Walker said.

Kentucky Youth Advocates tracks information on child and family well-being—including demographic data, economic security, education, health and safety, among other measures, said Amy Swan, a senior policy analyst for the statewide group.

With Walker’s help, Jefferson County’s raw numbers will be presented in a way that’s easier for people to use.

“It’s important for the decision-makers, like the mayor and Metro Council, to see it in a way that makes sense to them and in a way that perhaps allows them justify resource allocation,” Swan said.

That’s why Harrell said it’s important to make sure this information stays open. He said numbers on a spreadsheet don’t really communicate issues effectively, and city governments don’t usually have the proper resources to present the information interactively.

“It’s the key to be able to do the public’s work more effectively and efficiently engaging the public themselves, so you are not leaning on the municipal actors that have strained budgets every year,” Harrell said.

Harrell said he hopes to start pushing for a citywide open data ordinance in the coming months.

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