Data and drones dominate citizen technology engagement discussion

From left: Grace Simrall, Michael Schnuerle, Chris Seidt, Mitch Herckis | Photo by Jonathan Meador

For a brief two hours on Wednesday, a 200-plus crowd of assorted coders, technocrats, public servants and erstwhile data-minded citizens got to peek behind the already thin curtain of Louisville’s nascent open data movement.

But one topic commanded more time than any other during the “civic engagement through technology” event at 21c: drones.

The talk centered on the city’s use of the ShotSpotter technology, which uses acoustic sensors to locate a gunshot and, through its parent company’s contract with Louisville Metro Government and the Louisville Metro Police Department, dispatch an automated drone to surveil the location within moments.

Mayor Greg Fischer gave opening remarks touting the various successes of data technology achieved by his administration, included the ShotSpotter system in his keynote speech.

“There’s obviously complications with something like this,” Fischer said, “but that’s why we applied for it for an innovation grant, because you have to work through these types of things, so we’re in the middle of that process.”

Louisville is one of 35 finalists for a $100,000 grant from the 2018 Bloomberg U.S. Mayor’s Challenge.

The city finalized its $1.7 million contract to use ShotSpotter technology last year.

Insider Louisville reported this month that the FAA didn’t include the Louisville application to fly automated drones to gunshot sites on its list of pilot project awardees. The program lets local governments apply for innovation zones where new drone operations would be permitted beyond the current visual line-of-sight limitations. The city said it intended to apply again.

Gathered together in a headlining panel discussion in the main gallery of 21c Museum Hotel, Metro Louisville’s troika of public information specialists — Grace Simrall, chief of civic innovation and technology; Michael Schnuerle, the city’s lead data officer; and Metro Information Technology Chris Seidt — dished on a wide range of topics related to “civic engagement through technology.”

The topics included everything from streamlining government websites and services to accessibility apps, privacy concerns, further data sharing between agencies, digital equity and more.

When asked by the panel moderator Mitch Herckis what Louisville could do to test “citizen comfort” with such technology initiatives, Simrall used the drone program as an example.

“I think that when we speak to the public, initially they say, you know, ‘I hear drones, and I hear ShotSpotter, and it sounds a little scary,’ ” she began. “For us, what we’ve discovered is that, again, making sure that community, especially from a cross-generational perspective, is informed about what we’re doing. It is so very important before we ever move forward with the program.”

She added that there are more applications for city-operated drones than just ShotSpotter, citing examples of their use in aiding fire response teams during the Whiskey Row fire, land surveying, and more.

Seidt said that the city had a “good amount of data coming in” about gunshots before rolling out the ShotSpotter program last year, but learned following its implementation that the majority of gunfire that occurred in the city wasn’t reported to the police.

“It’s in the neighborhood of 70 to 80 percent of the gunfire in our community” that isn’t being called in, Seidt said. “It’s really kind of shocking when you hear it the first time.”

Seidt said that, based on the city’s analysis of drone response times under the ShotSpotter system, a drone can travel about half a mile within 90 seconds, increasing police responsiveness tremendously over the traditional officer in a patrol car dealing with traffic.

There was also a lingering sentiment among some in the room that not all of the city’s departments had been included in the mayor’s open data revolution.

David Summerfield, director of information services in the Jefferson County Clerk’s Office, told Insider Louisville that his department had lots of data to share, but most of it was held back by outdated websites.

When asked if he had been working with any of the mayor’s data team, Summerfield said that he had yet to hear back from the city’s Office of Innovation beyond a phone call made to him nearly two years ago.

And David Herde, a systems administrator for the Transit Authority of River City, expressed frustration over how to engage and inform the public.

“You’ve mentioned a lot of programs that are going on,” Herde said, “but there’s a whole lot of people out in the area who are not tech savvy. If I was to put up a sign that said ‘here’s a lot of cool stuff that you really want to be informed about and this is where you go to look for it,’ where would that be?”

Simrall responded that the city is in the process of redesigning its “citizen portal” to be easier to use and offer more relevant information to citizens.

“There is no one single, easy solution to this, but certainly having a better web presence is a start, and we’re really looking forward to having that content available to citizens who have access to computers,” she said.

Unsatisfied, Herde asked again, “OK, but right now, if I was to put a sign saying ‘look at this cool stuff,’ what would I put on that sign?”

“Go to,” Simrall said.