Tom Eblen: After visit, tech fellows now working to give Lexington a 'boost'

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 3, 2014 

Livien Yin, left, Erik Schwartz and Lyzi Diamond spent February in Lexington as Code for America fellows.

TOM EBLEN — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

Three young technologists spent February getting to know Lexington. They met with city employees, business people and non-profit leaders. They walked streets, rode along with code enforcement officers, held meetings in coffee houses and hosted happy hours with community activists. They spent "quality time" along Nicholasville Road. They ate a lot of local donuts.

On Saturday, Lyzie Diamond, Erik Schwartz and Livien Yin flew back to San Francisco, where they will work until mid-November creating technology tools that citizens can use to improve life in Lexington.

The three are on fellowships with Code for America, a nonprofit organization that calls itself the Peace Corps for Geeks. Lexington was selected this year as one of eight cities to host fellows, who also are working in Rhode Island and Puerto Rico.

The fellows' goal is to leverage technology to empower citizens to improve their communities. Lexington's participation is supported financially by 30 local people, businesses and organizations, including Mayor Jim Gray, the Urban County Council and Commerce Lexington.

In addition to the fellows' technology expertise, sponsors wanted their fresh eyes on Lexington's progress, problems and potential.

"They can help us see what we maybe cannot see," said Bob Quick, president of Commerce Lexington.

At the end of their month here, I met with Diamond, Schwartz and Yin to find out what they discovered about Lexington, and what they hope to accomplish.

"It went by fast," said Yin, adding that they plan to return to town for a couple of weeks in April. By then, the snow and ice will be gone and the pace of life will be quickened by Keeneland and other spring activities.

They will spend this week debriefing with the other Code for America fellows and narrowing the focus of their project. They will be listening for common themes and additional ideas from other fellows. But their thinking at this point is to focus on tools to improve communication and collaboration in Lexington.

They said "data visualization" tools could help Lexington residents better understand information already collected by many local organizations and government agencies.

"Sometimes it's just shining a light on things that already exist and providing tutorials, examples to get people to use existing tools," Diamond said. "Trying to find ways to get people excited about new things is one of the challenges of the fellowship."

One example of such a tool is What's My District?, which was developed by Open Lexington, a volunteer group of local technologists that is nonprofit, nonpartisan and dedicated to more transparent government. To see that tool and others in development, visit its website: Openlexington.org.

Diamond, 24, is originally from New Jersey and also has lived in Hong Kong, Oakland, Calif., Philadelphia and Portland, Ore. Her expertise is digital map-making, and one of her favorite activities while in Lexington was teaching a group of Girl Scouts the basics of how to do it.

Yin, 24, is from Lincoln, Mass., studied art in college but learned technology skills after moving to San Francisco to pursue her interest in neighborhood-based urban revitalization.

Schwartz, 33, grew up in Albion, Mich., and graduated from Oberlin College in Ohio. Since playing in Chicago rock bands, he has worked for several years developing web applications for businesses. His wife, Sarah Smith-Schwartz, is from Lexington.

All three said they enjoyed their time in Lexington. They were impressed by the amount of grassroots community improvement they saw, as well as the community spirit and strong personal networks.

"In every meeting we've had, the person we're meeting with will mention a name of someone we already have met with or know and someone we haven't met with yet," Diamond said. "People are really connected to each other here, which is awesome. For a town of 300,000-plus, that's impressive."

"Lexington seems to be changing so fast," Yin added. "I'm excited by the level of engagement that's already happening."

Whatever technology tools the three develop, they are likely to be geared toward small-scale action, because many Lexington neighborhoods are already engaged and tend to have different needs and issues.

"How can we help people have more impact, know about more stuff they care about and communicate with others more effectively?" Schwartz asked.

"So many connections happen by word-of-mouth and face-to-face interaction," Diamond said. "We're trying to find ways not to replace that but to boost it and facilitate it."

Tom Eblen: (859) 231-1415. Email: teblen@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @tomeblen. Blog: tomeblen.bloginky.com

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