Nick Such and Chase Southard
A new breed of hacker is at work in Lexington. Before you rush to start changing online passwords, these aren’t the subversive kind of computer programmers that your anti-virus software warned you about. These tech-savvy problem solvers are bent on using their talents for Lexington’s benefit, by helping government to make information more readily accessible to its citizens.
“If you talk to a lot of programmers, they seek puzzles. They see the challenge, and they build something [to answer it]. That’s kind of what we do every day,” said Chase Southard, a programmer at software company CirrusMio and founder of the local nonprofit group OpenLexington. “We are just trying to apply that same ethos to caring for Lexington, in the way that we can contribute.”
In 2009, Southard attended a computer conference in Nashville, Tenn., where he heard a five-minute lightning presentation on a new movement called “civic hacking,” in which volunteers use their tech skills to help build better connections between an open government and a more engaged citizenry.
“It was like a lightbulb went off in my head,” Southard said. “I had already wanted to do things with civic data and been frustrated because I couldn’t find it or it wasn’t there, or the license was prohibitive so I couldn’t use it.”
He started OpenLexington six months later.
At the time, Southard, who had earned a degree in biology from the University of Kentucky, was working at a microbiology lab in the UK Medical School’s Department of Pharmacology. Civic involvement was a relatively new interest for him, and computer science was just something for which he’d always had a natural affinity. Launching a citywide movement to strengthen ties between government and local citizens with technology was a bit beyond his skill set, he said.
Southard said the initiative couldn’t have taken hold without a solid group effort. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before a core group of interested people, both inside and outside the government, started to form around the idea, helping him to network, educate people and raise awareness about what could be accomplished with open government data sources and a little civic-minded programming expertise.
Nick Such was one of those early advocates. As co-founder of Awesome, Inc., a downtown business accelerator primarily aimed at high-tech start-ups, Such has invested much of his time into helping Lexington grow its own entrepreneurial initiatives.
After graduating from UK with a degree in mechanical engineering, Such opted to stay in Lexington and apply himself to the early-stage start-up side of economic development, rather than heading to grad school or more potentially lucrative employment in a bigger city.
Like Southard, Such had been frustrated by his inability to find local information. As a cyclist, he wanted details on bike routes around town, for example, and the location of bike racks. He got interested in geospatial data while working with websites like Open Street Map, which applies an open-source, Wikipedia-type model to local mapping.
“Just seeing the power of that, it showed me what can happen when you put high-leverage, powerful tools in the hands of everyday citizens,” he said.
Working with the Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government and the University of Kentucky, OpenLexington has started developing those kinds of tools. They built a mobile app called “What’s My District?” to clue users in on their representative districts, assigned public schools and other zoning information. They also created a Local Wiki site of crowdsourced knowledge about all things Lexington and a soon-to-be-released project using the application Yelp to provide up-to-date health inspection scores for local restaurants. The group is also working on mobile apps to help Lexingtonians keep track of bus and trolley services in real-time.
And more innovation is on the way. In October, the national civic-hacking organization Code for America named Lexington as one of 10 cities that will participate in its 2014 fellowship program. The group will assign three as-yet-unnamed tech experts to lend their talents to the city for the year to address local challenges and improve government service.
The OpenLexington efforts and the Code for America fellowship have energized the city’s internal IT team, said Jamie Emmons, chief of staff for Mayor Jim Gray. Last year, the city launched its open data portal (data.lexingtonky.gov), led by its own resident experts, Chad Cottle, Philip Stiefel and Chris Doerge, along with Such. The portal is a collaborative effort that includes 93 data sets from city government, the property value administrator, Fayette County Public Schools and the County Clerk. According to Emmons, this is just the beginning, in terms of building those data-enabled bridges between public entities, volunteers and the private sector.
“The open data initiative allows cities to tap into the creative potential of our civic-minded citizens who want to help improve their communities,” Emmons said. “Code for America efforts are really about ‘imagining what’s possible,’ and open data plays a significant role.”
That creative opportunity for civic service is what keeps Southard and Such dedicated to the cause as well. Southard said there’s a satisfaction that comes from being able to use his tech-related skill set to make Lexington a better place. Such agreed, and he said that mindset is not uncommon among a particular subset of local techies: the ones like him who could probably find more money or prestige working in larger cities, but who instead opt to stay in Lexington because there’s just something they love about the place. That love also makes them more inclined to roll up their sleeves and put their tech skills to work to improve their hometown. Such also sees the open-data initiatives as an image builder for Lexington, especially when attracting tech-oriented entrepreneurs who might be considering a move to the Bluegrass.
Southard added that civic hacking isn’t strictly limited to the techie crowd, and he hopes more Lexingtonians will enlist in the effort, as continuous updating and fresh perspectives will be needed to sustain the group’s efforts in the long term.
For more information on OpenLexington and ways to get involved in the effort, check online at openlexington.org.