Smart Russell: Community Engagement Lessons Learned

Ed Blayney
Nov 12, 2019 · 5 min read
Credit: wikipedia.org

Smart Russell is our first multi-faceted Smart City initiative. This gives us the opportunity to learn how residents feel about our Smart City work when new technology is planned for their neighborhood, not just when it is theoretical. Since July, we have talked with Russell stakeholders about the project including residents, elected officials, community leaders, and the neighborhood association. We engaged in direct two-way conversations about the project: what it is, what it is not, and learned where we could improve it.

Smart Russell Overview

  • 35 Public Safety Cameras
  • 150 vacant and abandoned property smart smoke detectors (CASPER)
  • Free Public Wi-Fi
  • Louisville Fiber Information Technology (LFIT) project: 288 strands of middle mile, fiber optic cable

Read more about Smart Russell

What we have learned from the community

In general, the people we talked to support the project. Everyone agreed the Public Wi-Fi, LFIT fiber-build, and CASPER devices are going to help with challenges in the neighborhood. But, not everyone agreed that the Public Safety cameras were good for the neighborhood. As a result, most of our conversations revolved around the cameras. Privacy concerns and historical injustices were common themes during discussions, but even with concerns, the community was not completely against the cameras.

Here is what we learned from the engagements:

Project Development Process

People want to know not only what you’re doing, but how you got to where you are. It’s important that people understand the project genesis because its origin either adds to or takes away from the legitimacy of the work.

Early in the process, a community leader told us we need to clearly outline our process that led to the development of Smart Russell. And, that we needed to lay it out at the beginning of the conversation, not just when asked. We changed our approach and it made our follow-on community conversations more productive. Once we made it clear up-front that Smart Russell is grounded in the extensive community engagement that went into Vision Russell and takes on challenges residents identified, our conversations with other community leaders generally became more open and two-way.

Public Safety cameras have both supporters and detractors

When talking about Public Safety cameras, you need to present the good with the bad, and you have to be an honest broker. Cameras are not a cure-all for crime. But, they can provide benefits to public safety, if they are properly resourced and part of a larger strategy. We tried to be clear throughout our engagement with the community that these cameras will not solve crime by themselves. They are part of a larger Louisville Metro Police Department (LMPD) strategy to help with Russell’s number one self-identified community goal: reduce crime and violence.

In our conversations, community members perceived the addition of cameras to Russell both positively and negatively. People of an older generation typically supported cameras, and people in that fall into the millennial age range were generally more wary of them. To illustrate the complexity of the conversation, one resident shared that they were not in favor of the Public Safety cameras, but they installed a personal home surveillance camera on their house due to crime issues in their neighborhood.

From what we have learned from our research and engagement with the community, the biggest issue with public safety technology is transparency. You must tell the community what you are doing it, why you are doing it and how it is being done.

It’s also important people understand how the police use the technology. At our meeting with the Russell Neighborhood, in response to a question, LMPD officers described how the footage is used in different situations and how LMPD interacts with the civilian Real Time Crime Center (RTCC) staff. They described how RTCC staff helps paint the picture of a situation for an officer before they arrive on the scene, and that the vast majority of the time, the RTCC staff do not generate the LMPD officer response; a community call is what sets the action in motion. We try to make it clear the technology is a tool for people, not the other way around.

Things in place to protect privacy

  • Cameras only monitor public spaces. They are not allowed to look in privately owned homes or anything not visible from the public rights of way
  • Every time footage is accessed, RTCC analysts must log their access and purpose. These records are randomly audited on a weekly basis.
  • State law prevents cameras from using microphones to listen to and record conversations without a warrant. LMPD cameras do not have microphones and can not be used for this purpose.
  • Footage is stored for only 30 days (unless there is an ongoing investigation) and can be requested by the community within those 30 days (again, unless there is an ongoing investigation)

Things we are going to change based on community conversations

  • RTCC staff members will take LMPD racial equity training. This is already mandatory for officers and now will be a part of the RTCC analyst training as well.
  • Update RTCC policies and post them online. RTCC policies are already open-records discoverable, but not easily accessible online currently.
  • Updating RTCC’s online presence. The center already has a website, but we are going to post more about the center online. The updated website will include news media coverage about the center and LMPD will talk directly about how the center works with officers to make Louisville a safer place to live.

National trends impact local perception

National trends such as facial recognition impact how people perceive government surveillance. A lot of people we talked to assumed that we had facial recognition technology already embedded on the cameras. They believed that someone would be able to review years of footage of them walking around the neighborhood be able to pinpoint where they were all day every day. People are concerned that these cameras will be looking into their homes. They were concerned that Louisville Metro government could track their every move in the city and listen in on their conversations with their neighbors. These are reasonable concerns considering what you hear in national news, but they’re unfounded for how Louisville uses the cameras. As described above, we have laws and policies in place to protect their privacy. Our two-way community conversations helped dispel some myths, improve understanding of the privacy protections in place, and helped us understand where we need to increase transparency.

While we have learned a lot, we know the journey is not over. There are more people to talk to about this project and lessons to be learned.

If you would like to talk with me about this project, please reach out at ed.blayney@louisvilleky.gov and you can follow the project at twitter @edblayney or @LouisvilleCIT #SmartRussell

Louisville CIT

The official publication for Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Civic Innovation and Technology (CIT) in Louisville, KY

Ed Blayney

Written by

@OPI2Lou #iteam project manager, #localgov, #smartcity, #mobility,#digitalinclusion, #civictech, wannabe policy wonk #Veteran #RollTide #TarHeel

Louisville CIT

The official publication for Louisville Metro Government’s Office of Civic Innovation and Technology (CIT) in Louisville, KY

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