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Grace Simrall Brings Tech Expertise, Broad Background to Innovation Role in Louisville, Ky.

The city’s chief of civic innovation discusses her approach to the position and upcoming projects.

Quick! Think of a city leading the way in the technology space. What name first comes to mind? Is it Boston, New York or San Francisco? Maybe it’s Philadelphia, Seattle or Chicago. Those are all good answers, but Kentucky’s technology gem of Louisville deserves a position closer to front of mind for all it has done and for what its newest tech hire indicates for the city’s future.

Each year Louisville ranks highly in the Center for Digital Government’s Digital Cities Survey for its dedication to innovation. One of its most high-profile innovation projects is Air Louisville, which distributed smart asthma inhalers to help the city get a bead on its air quality. But for years, Louisville has launched different technology projects that could serve the public in some way.

In 2012, the city integrated alerts into an online mapping tool that allowed citizens to receive granular information about the crimes they cared about where they lived. The city adopted an “open by default” data policy in 2013, years before many even knew what the term meant. Earlier this year Louisville invested in solar power through the purchase of 400 kW from the Clean Energy Collective. In addition, programs around education and data, 3-D modeling, and citizen engagement have kept Louisville continually in the news for its transformative, tech-driven efforts.

Louisville was among the first cities to hire an innovation chief, and when Chief of Civic Innovation Ted Smith departed last summer, he was replaced by Grace Simrall, a forward-thinking techie who said she’s done a little bit of everything in the technology space. The change raises questions, like what this means for the direction of technology in Louisville and what new projects Simrall’s leadership will spawn.

Question: What attracted you to a position in the public sector?

I had my own startup [iGlass Analytics], and it was focused on the health-care and data analytics space. I was bringing to bear a lot of years’ experience as a data scientist in other areas and recognized a major opportunity in health care, like improving patient outcomes and health-care delivery.

At the same time, I was working with Ted [Smith] and the mayor [Greg Fischer] on various civic engagements, including our local makerspace, LVL1. The mayor is very visionary. Back in 2011 when he took office, he absolutely knew he wanted to create a chief-level position in innovation and a chief-level position in performance improvement, recognizing that oftentimes when you go into an organization that has very well established core services and day-to-day operations, it’s very hard for those groups to get their heads above water and have any time to spare working on innovative projects and continuous performance improvement. I knew that this was a very special administration, a mayor who understood innovation the way an entrepreneur would understand it. And certainly Ted came from that same entrepreneurial background.

So when the opportunity came up to take over Ted’s position, it was very attractive to me because I knew that they recognized that whether the citizens acknowledge it or not, cities are living laboratories. They’re already participating whether they know it or not, and there is an ability to activate — especially in a city like Louisville that is so civically engaged in the first place — through both leadership and active citizen scientists to leverage the city as a platform.

Q: What projects can people expect to see coming out of Louisville in the near future?

I want to ensure that my predecessor Ted Smith’s projects will have continuity. That’s very important. He’s well-known, as is the mayor, for being highly innovative in projects like Air Louisville. Crowdsourcing through active patients’ and engaged citizens’ data collection to identify well-known hot spots as well as unexpected hot spots is really great.

Then there’s the Code Louisville initiative focused around transforming our workforce so it’s a next-generation workforce, and lots of projects focused around what is referred to as “digital inclusion” and “digital equity.”

Louisville won a major grant from Next Century Cities to create a gigabit experience center in an underserved neighborhood. I’m very excited and busy planning that — having it be more than just a place where people get gigabit speed Wi-Fi. We’re in the process of developing that vision of what the experience really should be, and even making sure that we don’t take for granted that there may be citizens that are less technically savvy. They may have never worked with the Internet before, or they may not be familiar with digital devices, so we need to make sure that we include them in that experience as we galvanize the community around areas of improving our fiber infrastructure.

That leads into another initiative that is somewhat nascent — it was underway when I took over — which is our smart apartments smart city initiative with CNET. What’s unique about this particular space, we’re calling it the LouieLab, is it’s designed to be a way for us to have a concrete demonstration of what the smart home looks like in an urban environment and then showing what that real interface between smart city and smart home looks like. I know there’s a lot of talk about smart cities, and there are certainly plenty of smart city frameworks being developed both nationally and globally, but I think what I can say about both the mayor and Ted, traits that I admire, is that they are show-and-tell kind of people. It’s not just a matter of talking about things, but they really work on projects that produce results.    

Q: Which of those projects will be your main priority?

All of those things are No. 1, so the way I’m going to be able to pull this off is I have a wonderful team. I have two innovation project managers that help me run the day-to-day operations of the projects, and in fact they are helping to ensure continuity. Ursula Mullins and Ed Blayney will be very instrumental in ensuring continuity and the day-to-day aspects of the projects.

One thing we do very well in Louisville Metro government is cross-functional participation, so activating virtual teams and then finally external partners. For example, with the Air Louisville project, we’re partnering with the Institute for Healthy Air, Water and Soil, as well as Dr. Aruni Bhatnagar at the University of Louisville School of Medicine to ensure that we have the right external partners on that.

From my perspective, coming from the health-care side, the more you can integrate data collection with normal activities of daily living, whether it’s something that’s completely passive — inferring patient behavior from things like motion sensors and accelerometers and door contact sensors, perhaps a wearable device — all the way to Internet-enabled vital capture devices or things like asthma inhalers … the more you can automate the capture of that data, the better.

Our current gold standard for collecting patient behavior is paper journaling. There have been way too many studies that indicate that what patients end up doing — if they do it at all — is they sit in the parking lot of their doctor’s office and they fill it out for the whole month. That’s not accurate. You want to make the system as frictionless as possible and make it part of their daily lives with full transparency so you know what they’re doing. They have opted into this process with you.

Q: How will your approach to this position differ from your predecessor’s?

I’m not going to be a 1:1 replacement for Ted, and in fact I’m coming from a very technical background. As a way to pay the bills starting in college, I worked in IT. So if there is a job in IT, I’ve probably done it, starting off in tech support and working my way up, discovering that I love data. The majority of my career has been focused on the data science aspect of IT. It’s that interface between the technical world and the business world. So how do I see myself as being different from Ted? I bring a different set of skills to bear.

The nitty-gritty, get-your-hands-dirty types of details — I do have those skills and worked in environments where I was both a coach and a player. I didn’t expect my team to do all the work, but I would lead by example. The final buck would stop with me, so I would encourage them if they were stuck to spend some time trying to get unstuck, but if they got stuck to approach me and we would solve the problem together.

My sectors are a bit different. I would say everything from postsecondary education — what a university cares about — to supply chain management, inventory management, asset management and the retail space, in particular payment processing in the retail space, all the analytics around that, and then finally health care. I’m bringing a rather broad set of experiences and domain knowledge to the role as well. ¨