This post is authored by Louisville, KY Chief of Civic Innovation Ted Smith

When I was asked to join Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer in 2011 to run the city’s innovation office, my first job was to determine the agenda for this new department. Where is the opportunity to innovate?  How can we improve the quality of life for our citizens?

To address these questions, I instituted a slightly unorthodox approach. Some folks, like the Chamber of Commerce, collect “best” lists that shed a positive light on Louisville.  While that is fabulous, I wanted the innovation team to be in charge of the “worst” lists.  Where are we struggling? Where do we need to innovate?

One opportunity presented itself clearly from the outset. It was clear from available data that allergies, asthma, and air quality were an issue in Louisville. To understand this problem,  we raised philanthropic money to start a pilot program to look at the distribution of asthma more granularly, using GPS and real-time data collection, as opposed to more typical phone surveys and prescription data.  These methods of data collection are moving Louisville from episodic citywide information gathering to real-time information that is directly connected to neighborhoods and blocks.

As we moved through the pilot program, we began to see hot spots of elevated asthma rates. Real-time data analysis allowed us to rule out indoor air quality issues, because the problems did not occur where folks lived.  We are now innovating further by supplementing EPA data with other types of air monitoring so we can determine more specifically what is happening – for example, we may find out it is a small particulate issue that would respond to traffic calming interventions.

Because of our innovative efforts to address and improve air quality issue, NASA contacted my office to offer some open, free, and valuable information  from a NASA satellite, which travels over Louisville daily producing data regarding nitrogen dioxide levels. Collecting all the data that is available to augment our existing data makes good sense – access to all these data sets will lead us to next steps and potential solutions.

Google Traffic is another good example of using available and real-time data.  Most cities hire use pneumatic road tubes across the roads to conduct traffic counts.  That one day of data collection results in static statistics that are used for the next year. Alternatively, for the cost of one traffic study in one site, cities can access Google Traffic data, collecting real time information that reflects the current conditions.

Having real-time data is powerful and critical in enabling cities to move from relatively static and slow-moving bureaucracies to a much more fluid and responsive understanding of current realities.

Of course, having next-generation broadband is essential if a city plans to use such large data sets effectively.  Without adequate connectivity, it is not possible to use the data for quick, in the minute data analysis. That’s why in Louisville, we’ve made broadband connectivity a priority for our city – connection to high-quality Internet is crucial to the success of our open data projects and to the larger future of our city.

Cities should welcome all data – tell the community to bring what they’ve got! Opening data for citizens and organizations to not only use, but also to supplement with their own data, changes the way we interpret and resolve community concerns. We are literally creating terabits of data which we can and should use to improve our understanding of existing issues and to help us figure out what new questions we want answered.