Lafayette, La., Considers Open Data, Smart City Policies

The plan is to allow online access to up-to-the-minute air quality data.

by Richard Burgess, The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. / January 23, 2017

(TNS) — Imagine picking up your smartphone to explore crime statistics for your neighborhood, see new restaurant permits issued over the past year or chart the safest bike route through the city.

Lafayette city-parish government is in the early stages of a new initiative to give residents easy access to a world of interesting information sitting on government computers that has been largely inaccessible.

The idea is generally referred to as "open data": taking the piles of digital data held by government agencies and opening it up to the public.

The effort here received a boost late last year when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced a $40,000 grant to install 300 air quality sensors throughout Lafayette as part of the federal agency's Smart City Challenge.

The plan is to allow online access to up-to-the-minute air quality data — information residents could use to assess air quality on their street or to see how it might vary in different parts of town or at different times of the day.

The sensors will collect data on particulate matter and ozone, two common pollutants, as well as temperature and humidity.

"This is all going to be publicly accessible data, ready for them to use and immediately relevant to the community," said Will LaBar, of CGI, a global technology firm with a Lafayette office that is working with city-parish government on the open data initiative.

Lafayette's air quality is not known to be particularly bad — and the air quality data will not be used by any regulatory agency — but the idea is to use the project to develop better strategies for collecting, storing and accessing large amounts of local data and to get residents, particularly tech-savvy students, thinking about what they might do with it.

"It is the first of what we hope to be many smart city initiatives," LaBar said, using a term that describes using data and technology to improve quality of life and government services.

Residents already can access some data held by city-parish government, including crime figures, but finding and exploring the information online can be a clunky process, and the digital data is generally not available in a form that allows someone to use it in their own specialized computer application.

Building permits are now accessible through city-parish government's website, but not in the form that would allow an enterprising resident with computer skills to build a smartphone app that shows, for example, every building permit issued within a mile of any address for the preceding month or every restaurant in Lafayette.

But an increasing number of cities are making such tasks easier.

The closest example is an hour away from Lafayette in Baton Rouge, where city leaders launched an open data initiative in 2015.

East Baton Rouge Parish government offers online access to data on businesses registered with city, fire incidents, government purchase orders, crime, real-time traffic conditions, sales tax collections, blighted property, building permits, tax rolls and city-parish employee salaries, among other things.

The data can be easily navigated on East Baton Rouge Parish government's website, which lets users display data through a variety of maps and charts that can be customized.

"The public can create their own visualizations," said Eric Romero, director of information services for East Baton Rouge Parish government. "It's about giving them the tools to really drill down into their area."

That Baton Rouge data also is available in raw form for anyone who wants to use it as fodder for their own smartphone or Web app.

In Lafayette, the possibilities of open data are expected to be explored at the upcoming CajunCodeFest, a computer programming competition hosted each spring by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

"It's the 'Iron Chef' for technology people and creative people," LaBar said.

This year's event, to be held March 30 through April 1, will task participants with working under a tight deadline to use data focused on the Acadiana region to develop interesting and useful digital tools.

"The whole goal is to drive smart innovation for Lafayette by using real data from the city," said UL-Lafayette's Center for Business and Information Technologies Director Matthew Delcambre, who is helping organize the event. "Where are the traffic jams? When is the mosquito man going to pass in front of my house" to spray?

CajunCodeFest participants will use some data that's already readily available, such as census figures, and Lafayette city-parish government has agreed to offer some of its local data, an early step in its nascent open data initiative.

City-parish government has set no timeline for a fully developed open data program that is geared toward the general public, but the city-parish administration has identified it as a priority.

City-Parish President Joel Robideaux said the recent EPA grant for the air quality sensors is a "momentum builder" for taking advantage of the city-owned fiber-optic Internet service, Acadiana's emerging technology sector and the expertise at UL-Lafayette.

“Pursuing smart city solutions in order to transform how [city-parish government] serves and interacts with citizens and businesses is critical to economic growth in Lafayette,” Robideaux said in a written statement. “Integrating our information systems and enabling open data initiatives will foster our economy, improve government services and increase citizen engagement.”

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