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Louisville, Ky., Becomes 12th City to Hire Chief Data Officer

The incoming chief data officer will focus on standardizing data and creating a more centralized system.

Michael Schnuerle is the 12th municipal chief data officer in the U.S., and he has a lot of work to do.

That’s because he has the task of breaking down data silos for the entire city of Louisville, Ky. — and almost all the city’s data is siloed. Not to mention inconsistently formatted.

“The way I see it playing out is helping departments within the city which can be siloed get a grip on their own data they collect and store, how they’re storing that, and then creating a citywide internal data storage system so that all this data that can be shared between departments can be on-demand for any other department in an automated way instead of through phone calls and emails,” he said.

Schnuerle started the job on Oct. 10, inheriting a data ecosystem the city has already done quite a bit of work on. Louisville became one of the first cities in the U.S. to formally adopt an open data plan when its mayor set an “open by default” standard in 2013. That led to the launch of an open data portal, as well as the performance-tracking LouieStat.

“Louisville, I think, is doing a great job with internal process improvement and management using data and with their open data portal,” he said. “And Louisville was one of the … first cities [of its size] to launch an open data portal. And then the mayor was one of the first to say that data should be open by default.”

And Schnuerle should know — he’s been working with the city on data projects for years. More than a decade ago, he launched a Google Maps-based tool to show users crime reports from around Louisville. Over time, he added more and more municipal data to the tool and eventually created a company called YourMapper. He also helped found the Civic Data Alliance, Louisville’s local Code for America brigade.

For his first year or so in the job, Schnuerle expects to be pretty busy untangling the organizing the city’s data. Theresa Reno-Weber, the outgoing chief of performance and technology and Schnuerle’s boss, said one of the reasons the city wanted to hire a chief data officer was because so much of Louisville’s data lacks standards. When her team tried to look into what was driving unscheduled overtime pay among city employees — a $13.9 million annual expense — they discovered that the various departments were recording overtime in different ways.

“Even if you were to extract that information from the various systems … you then had to do a number of transformations," she said, "and you had to do a lot of legwork to understand what you were looking at at the time, and was it really apples-to-apples?”

So on top of transforming data and centralizing it, Schnuerle will be working with departments and their “data champions” to put standards in place.

“I want to keep us moving forward and best of class and keep us on par with not just peer cities but cities like Chicago,” Schnuerle said.

In the near term, all that work will serve the mission of Reno-Weber’s office: to measure and improve the performance of the city. The Office of Performance Improvement and Innovation, launched in 2012, has “performance coaches” embedded in departments that help track metrics to show what they are doing well and what needs improving.

“The work of the team has been very focused on departmental-level data" she said. "We’ve tried to do it at a sort of enterprise level, but over the last five years we’ve just come to understand that the job to be done requires someone who can actually oversee it at a higher level instead of the performance coaches we have in each individual department.”

In the long term, it could mean a lot more.

“The value is unlimited,” Reno-Weber said. “I mean, it’s priceless, to use a commercial tag. Because on one hand there’s huge savings in terms of the time it takes analysts within our department and within other agencies who are trying to understand this data and look for improvement. … On the other side, there is an unknown set of opportunities that we may be missing because we’re not able to look at the data in a way that enables us to actively identify areas for collaboration [and] innovation.”

Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.