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Participants in the Louisiana Smart Growth Summit were told Wednesday that using information from databases can show which neighborhoods are more likely to experience house fires so that fire departments know areas where they should distribute smoke detectors. Databases on blight remediation and shootings can elicit feedback from the public and build trust. 

ADVOCATE STAFF PHOTO BY HILARY SCHEINUK

Giving citizens access to databases covering everything from police-involved shootings to blight remediation can help cities work more efficiently by boosting public trust and allowing people to point out where mistakes are happening, a Louisiana Smart Growth Summit speaker said Wednesday.

Lamar Gardere, who served as chief information officer for the city of New Orleans from 2014 to May, said fighting blight in the city became easier after people could see that their complaints were being cataloged, assigned and corrected.

“People could see what they were seeing in real life was showing up in the data,” said Gardere, who now heads The Data Center, a New Orleans-based group that wants to use information collected by government agencies as a way of developing sound policies.

Gardere was one of the speakers during a Smart Cities session during the final day of the summit. The event was sponsored by the Baton Rouge-based Center for Planning Excellence in the Shaw Center for the Arts that featured speakers from south Louisiana.

The success of revealing data in cleaning up blight led New Orleans leaders to put detailed information about police shootings on the internet. This helped build trust and accountability in the department. “People appreciate being able to see information and have a dialogue about it,” Gardere said.

Using big data technology from federal, state and local government databases is one of the hallmarks of a smart city. This is leading to changes like showing which neighborhoods are more likely to experience house fires, so fire departments can know the areas where they should distribute smoke detectors.

“It’s not rocket science, but it is hard,” said Lafayette Mayor-President Joel Robideaux. “Smart city initiatives are going to be the way to figure out what needs to happen.”

City leaders shouldn’t be afraid to venture out and take a risk on developments, like Lafayette’s decision in 2004 to build a municipal fiber network, providing high-speed internet service to households and businesses across the parish. That’s led competitors like Cox and AT&T to offer better and cheaper service in Lafayette and for the LUS Fiber network to get better to keep up with those competitors, Robideaux said.

“People want leaders to have a vision and push for it,” he said. “People will appreciate it in the long run.”

Lafayette is now using the fiber network to help with two parishwide monitoring programs. One will use about $40,000 in grant funds from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deploy 300 air sensors around the parish. The sensors will be placed on traffic lights and at schools early next year to measure for particulate matter and ozone. They’ll be up for about a year.

Will LaBar, vice president of CGI, an information technology and business service provider with offices in Lafayette, said the next step is to place similar low-cost water monitors across the parish to give strategic direction on how to deal with issues involving climate change and development.

“We’ll be measuring down to the coulee (drainage) level so we can wrestle with the issues we are dealing with,” he said.

Justin Ehrenwerth, president and chief executive officer of the Water Institute of the Gulf, said data from federal and state sources could be used to provide real-time forecasting of flooding events several days before a heavy rainfall. This could allow first responders a chance to get in position to help people and for potentially affected residents to get to high ground.

Ehrenwerth said a statewide flood forecasting network could be set up for “probably less than $20 million” in about three years. “Some parishes would be ready quicker than that,” he said. “The biggest part is the inland flood models.” After all, some of the floodmaps for East Baton Rouge Parish were developed in the 1970s and 1980s and have been outdated by decades of development.

Follow Timothy Boone on Twitter, @TCB_TheAdvocate.