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Innovation chief taps IFTTT platform to spur 'citizen scientists'

Grace Simrall's smart city vision includes more than an open data portal; she wants data to be useful and user-friendly.

Grace Simrall has been the chief of civic innovation in Louisville, Ky., for less than a year, but she's already making headlines. In her quest to make open data more accessible to constituents, Simrall has established the first city channel on the If This Then That, or IFTTT, platform, a web service that links services and devices together.

By connecting data sets to IFTTT -- that's "ift" as in "shift" -- Simrall is making sure that Louisville residents don't have to deal with APIs or dig through flat files on the city's open data portal. Instead, they can subscribe for no charge to a set of prebuilt applets, or mini-applications, on the IFTT platform.

"I view this as part of a broader strategy that we have when it comes to Louisville's take on smart cities," she said.

Grace SimrallGrace Simrall

Simrall, who founded the boutique analytics firm iGlass Analytics before taking a role in the public sector, launched the project in February, starting with the city's real-time air-quality data set. Residents of Louisville, a city that's often ranked as one of the most polluted in the United States, can now subscribe to 15 air-quality applets. They can, for example, automatically receive an SMS notification when the air quality changes or have the data automatically recorded to a Google spreadsheet.

Several of the applets are targeted at smart home technology, one of the draws to the platform, according to Simrall. Applets can trigger an air filtration system to turn on or the color of a Philips Hue lightbulb to change color when the air quality changes.

"The prebuilt applets make it easy to democratize open data," Simrall said. "Now, a person who is not technical, all they have to do is be able to install an app, which most people can do, and subscribe to an applet."

Start with what you have

Simrall, who oversees the city's IT department, chose the real-time air-quality data set for a couple of reasons: Air quality has a broad impact on the community, as it affects every resident and not just a couple of neighborhoods. Plus, the data set already had an established API -- code that makes it easy for applications to interact.

Indeed, Simrall's first step to make city data more accessible was to audit the open data sets and identify those with established APIs. The audit enabled Simrall and her team to prioritize what data sets needed APIs next, and it armed them with information on what data sets could be plugged into platforms like IFTTT right now.

The IFTTT-Louisville partnership

Louisville is considered an IFTTT partner. The city pays an annual fee to connect city data to other services, such as Google, Twitter or Facebook. The city makes these connections by constructing applets, mini-applications that act as a triggering mechanism between city data and a disparate service. A simple example is this: If the air quality changes, then send me a text message. Citizens can subscribe to the applets for free.

"We wanted to look at how we could integrate [open data] into commercial off-the-shelf solutions," she said.

IFTTT was a natural fit with this strategy, because its basic construction for creating simple, conditional commands -- what IFTTT used to call "recipes" -- is "meant for APIs," Simrall said. "It's meant to say, if this happens, whatever it is, then, basically, call this other API to do this function."

Simrall is hoping that by experimenting with platforms such as IFTTT, the city will not only better engage with average citizens, but spur what she refers to as "citizen scientists," a low-code approach to app development, into action. Residents can, for example, build their own air-quality applet, if they're so inclined. "A connection has to be made on the back end to the IFTTT platform," she said. "We have to do that; the citizens can't do that themselves. But once that connection exists, then they can build an applet or recipe."

In fact, she's already seeing this kind of "bidirectional community engagement" pay off. "We've already had citizen scientists do things like integrate the mayor's daily news briefing into Amazon Echo so that citizens can ask for it," she said.

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