Community

Understanding and ensuring internet access equity depends on data.

It’s easy to speculate about where connection speeds may struggle, but without the data, it’s nearly impossible to know who is getting good, reliable service and where opportunities exist for improvement, said Ted Smith, chief of innovation for Louisville Metro.

Private entities aren’t required to release much data related to broadband connectivity. And what data is available isn’t very useful for cities looking to breach digital divides and boost competition among internet service providers.

For this reason, Smith and a team of entrepreneurs and civic innovation experts are launching a free mapping tool called Speed Up Louisville this week. It’s designed to enable internet users here to record their connection speeds and compare them with others nearby and across the city.

“It makes for a great citizen science project where we can all donate some data about our experiences and, collectively, we can all benefit,” he said.

Its launch comes in the midst of a number of developments relating to fiber connectivity in the city.

Google Fiber announced last year it would examine the feasibility of providing ultra high-speed internet service to Louisville consumers. The news sparked a frenzy of interest from other providers: Time Warner and AT&T followed Google with news that they’d also begin offering gigabit service to residents in Louisville.

A handful of other companies are also seeking franchise status to begin laying fiber lines and hooking residents up to internet expected to be up to 100 times faster than what’s currently available.

Speed Up Louisville’s concept stems from a similar project in Seattle, where civic leaders partnered with tech-centric volunteers to create a map showing internet speeds across the city. In Louisville, entrepreneurs and city innovation teams collaborated with officials in Seattle to get the project off the ground.

A screenshot of Speed Up Louisville. Screenshot

A screenshot of Speed Up Louisville.

Ed Blayney, an innovation project manager for Louisville Metro, said officials in Seattle provided the necessary coding, tips and inspiration needed to see the project to fruition. The partnership, he said, is an example of two cities working together to push boundaries in an effort to improve residents’ quality of life.

“There’s always competition between cities, but people are always sharing,” he said.

The finished product is targeted to anyone who uses the internet — whether it be in a home, in an office or on a phone.

Eric Littleton is the co-founder of PowerUp Labs and helped design Louisville’s internet speed map. He caught wind of Seattle’s project in a Code for America event hosted by Louisville’s Civic Data Alliance earlier this year and decided to tailor a similar tool for Louisville.

“[The tool is designed] to help consumers understand what they’re actually getting, and are they getting the value their neighbor is getting or some other zip code is getting,” he said.

Littleton said the tool’s success depends on the depth of user participation. Since the idea is to record what internet speeds are across the city, it’s important users provide location data.

Users are asked a series of additional questions, like what type of internet they’re using (work or home), who provides their service, what type of service are they paying for and how much they pay, Littleton said. Answering any question is voluntary, and the process takes a few minutes.

All data provided via the tool will be available for public export, he said. Location data will be limited to zip-code level information. Blayney said city officials have no way of accessing user data beyond the public export, which is available to anyone.

Smith is touting the tool as a game-changer in Louisville’s quest for better internet connectivity. He said beyond allowing consumers to see whether they’re getting the service they’re paying for, the mapping program will provide a more accurate view into areas where speeds may be bogging down.

“We only have anecdotes, but we keep hearing them over and over again,” he said. “I really do want to see the data, and we all do, to get some validation for that.”

The hope is providers will be quick to move into struggling areas and meet consumers’ needs, Smith said.

“We win when they compete to provide service,” he said. “We’re losing when no one is trying to close gaps in the market.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.