Louisville’s Grace Simrall on bringing city data into the ‘smart’ home

Grace Simrall is Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology in Louisville, Ky.

Louisville is a leader when it comes to open-data policies. But Grace Simrall, the city’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology, knows that’s not enough. What really matters is that citizens are able to take city data and use it to their benefit.

That’s why she’s experimenting to see how city data might integrate with the new wave of “smart” home technologies. For example, it’s now possible in Louisville to be alerted about bad-air days when an internet-connected light in one’s home turns red. Her goal: to make it as easy for someone with a chronic respiratory condition to get that information as it is to check a clock for the time or a thermostat for the temperature. To test out new ideas in a real-world setting, Louisville has partnered with the gadget-review site CNET to create a “smart apartment” in Louisville.

We caught up with Simrall recently to find out more about what Louisville is learning from these experiments. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bloomberg Cities: Why is it so important for cities to be experimenting with new ways of making data useful to people?

Grace Simrall: Oftentimes, to use an open-data portal, it requires you to have a certain level of technical expertise. That’s not easy for the average citizen.

So I challenged my team when I came into this position back in August of 2016 to say: What would the intersection of the “smart” city, meaning open data, look like with a “smart” home? You’re used to receiving notifications on your phone, or having things emailed to you, but what about looking at it in terms of your physical environment? Could you plug in really useful information to inform your daily life and habits in a way that’s ubiquitous and embedded in your home?

We looked at some methods to do that and we came across the IFTTT platform.

What is that and why was it an opportunity for Louisville?

At first, it was a platform primarily to allow anyone to be able to “automate their habits” — that was their tagline. So, for example, if you had multiple social media channels that you were maintaining, it was complicated to take an Instagram photo and natively embed it in Twitter. IFTTT came about to make it easy for people who don’t know coding to automate that.

Now they’ve added all these connected home devices, which was really interesting for us as we started to explore the intersection between the smart city and smart home. We were the very first city to partner with IFTTT, which means we have an official Smart Louisville channel..

How do you use the platform?

We published what they call “applets,” which, if you’re looking at the Smart Louisville page, they show up as blue boxes. You pick what you want — if you want to receive emergency notifications by phone, log them in a Google spreadsheet, or have the lights change color, you pick that one. We figured we’d put some out there, and see what resonated.

There’s also the ability with this platform to build one from scratch yourself — whatever your imagination. If the air quality outside is bad, you can have it run the air purifier in your HVAC system. You don’t need to know any coding to do it.

Louisville published ‘applets’ on the IFTTT platform that make it easy for residents to choose new ways of receiving information from the city.

And what’s the response from users been like?

We’ve done several of these, with all kinds of different endpoint channels — connecting data to things like an Apple watch, or an Android wear device, or the different color-changing light bulbs on the market. For us, the number one applet is that if we issue an emergency alert through our standard emergency alert system, they receive a notification on their Android wear device — 110 people have subscribed to this.

We still haven’t broadly advertised that this service exists, so everything you see is from people finding it organically. We’re getting to the point of feeling confident that this is something that we can broadly advertise and get people to sign up for.

Why focus on smart homes?

We’re really exploring the idea of connecting user experience in the physical environment. There’s a lot of room for improvement. Say you look at what it’s like for someone who wants to know what the air quality is going to be today — there’s two different user experience journeys for them.

The first one is you need to know that there’s a particular local news station that gives out that information, and you better be watching at the right time for them to cover it. The other way is you have to go to your computer, smartphone, or laptop, find the page and read through a bunch of text to finally find the answer.

We’re exploring whether you can make the information more like a thermostat — if you want to know what the temperature is, you just look at it and you know the answer.

CNET has a connected home demo lab in Louisville — how are you working with them?

Actually, they have two. Back in 2014, they realized this was a burgeoning market, and one that didn’t have a media lens to talk about how to integrate all the different technologies together. They decided to create a smart house living laboratory here — it’s an enormous house, and their philosophy is to buy one of everything, test one of everything, and review one of everything.

In 2016, we approached them about creating another location but specifically through an equity lens. A lot of things they review and test are very expensive, or require permanent installation, which is a barrier to entry for urban renters, for example. We asked if they would be willing to explore that with us. In October of 2016, we opened the CNET Smart Apartment with them, and it’s located a floor above my office. That’s where we get to test these things out.

How do you think about the digital divide in terms of people who either can’t afford all these smart home devices or aren’t so into technology?

It’s a matter of recognizing that if we don’t have intentionality around it, not only will those populations continue to be left behind but the gap will widen. So we’re looking really hard to think of ways for this to be useful to them, too. Could we look at placing color-changing bulbs into homes, or at least shared spaces, in public housing? So that someone who has chronic lung problems could, say, decide not to sit outside today because it’s a challenging air quality day and do indoor activities instead.

We’re looking very seriously about how we get these technologies into Louisville Metro Housing Authority facilities so it’s useful to them. It won’t be that big of a leap for residents to understand what to do with the information. We may have to set it up for them, but if we do it right, then just like when you look at a clock you know what time it is, or you look at a thermostat and you know what temperature it is, you can look at a different kind of internet-based device and say, ‘Oh, I know what to do with that information.’

Any lessons learned for other cities?

We made everything we did for this IFTTT work open source to allow other cities to build the same thing. The first one we’re aware of that was able to take advantage of our open source code and adopt for their own use is Edmonton, Canada.

It’s really not that expensive to get started. We’re talking about between $3,000 and $5,000 for an annual subscription for IFTTT. To be able to do this kind of experimentation, it doesn’t take that much money, and we learn so much from the public — they’re giving us feedback by what they’re subscribing to.

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Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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Bloomberg Cities

Bloomberg Cities

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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