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Louisville, Ky., Looks to 'IFTTT' as Future of Open Data, Among Other Services

The model creates simple conditional statements called applets, which the city is using to create warnings about poor air quality and other emergencies.

As municipal governments across the country look to make open data sets easier for the average citizen to read and understand, Louisville, Ky., has adopted a new approach that it hopes can bridge this gap.

The method is commonly known as IFTTT, which stands for If This Then That, and is a free Web-based service used to create chains of simple conditional statements called applets. An example of one use would look something like this: If it snows overnight, then send me a text that tells me how much.

Louisville deployed the tech in January, connecting it to the city’s open data about air quality, and in recent weeks the city has added functionality linked to emergency notifications, said Matt Gotth-Olsen, a developer in Louisville’s Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation.

The way it currently works is that people can use it to set up an applet along the lines of: If air quality becomes hazardous, then turn the lightbulbs in my house orange. Louisville currently has a pilot project underway that involves distributing smart light bulbs to the public along with instructions on how to use IFTTT this way in order to showcase what the service can do.

Gotth-Olsen said air quality was a natural starting point for the region.

“In the Ohio Valley and in Louisville, we have really bad air quality because it is a valley, there’s a lot of allergens, pollen,” Gotth-Olsen said. “This is something popular on people’s minds, so we are doing outreach this way.”

In an effort to help other cities adopt this service, Louisville has made the code it’s using available online, and developers are discussing the future of the project on GitHub, currently asking residents to weigh in on 13 potential areas that it could be applied to next — a list that includes restaurant inspections, garbage pickups, road alerts and school closings.

Much of this info is currently available via Louisville’s open data portal, as well as elsewhere on the city’s website, but the idea is to simplify public access to it, making it available in a way that provides easy value to the lives of residents.

Many public agencies across the country have begun to redesign data portals and civic websites in ways that aspire to accomplish these things as well, using techniques such as data mapping and storytelling. Louisville hopes that embracing IFTTT will take these efforts past the realm of aesthetic repurposing.

“One thing we’ve been very cognizant of in doing this project is we didn’t want to just another website, or another mobile app that’s going to solve everyone’s problems, because that approach just does not get traction,” Gotth-Olsen said. “The power of IFTTT is that it is flexible, it can be customized by the citizens.”

The hope is that IFTTT will create a new, more effective channel for engaging with citizens in the smart city space moving forward. While Louisville was the first city government in the country to start using the tech, the prevalence of IFTTT is growing. In June, the company behind it announced its Data Access Project, which included more than 35 services aimed at gaining information from governmental agencies, the vast majority of which were federal, save for Tampa and the Texas Legislature. 

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.