Local politicos will remember Luther Lowe, who's in town today leading a social-media training session. The Fayetteville native worked for retired Gen. Wesley Clark and the state Democratic Party in the mid-aughts before taking a position in 2008 at Yelp, the online business directory and review platform. His current position is director of business outreach and public policy. What's that mean? Mostly explaining what Yelp does to policymakers, Lowe said earlier this week. He's also working to convince government agencies to use Yelp as a platform for garnering feedback from the citizens it serves as well as figuring out different ways the company can use open government datasets. For instance, Yelp recently created an open-data standard for information on restaurant health-inspection scores (it’s currently only available in the San Francisco area). Lowe said the company was inspired by the geographic-information standards Google helped define with Google Maps.
“Yelp is calling on cities to arrange their data in a certain way and provide it on a real time feed that other people can take advantage of,” Lowe said. “Usually the private sector, where the success of businesses relies on beautiful and functional products, is better equipped to take a [data] file and make it useful. Taxpayers sort of subsidize creation of that information, but it doesn’t see the light of day because governments aren’t the best at putting the data in a place that’s easy to access. You’re not going to go to a dot.gov site before you go out to dinner; you’re going to go to Yelp.”
Lowe still keeps tabs on politics and tech in Arkansas. His take on the tech park? It should be downtown. “You imagine pitching to a company like Yelp or Twitter or any cool young tech company. They don’t want to be in a strip mall. They want to be somewhere with a sense of vibrancy, where you’re catering to a younger demographic and you’re flanked by a cool, hip scene.”
Lowe thinks Arkansas has a natural predisposition to become a tech player. “If you look at innovative companies, it’s the Arkansas way. We’re independent, scrappy, innovative people. We have the DNA for tech entrepreneurship. Acxiom in downtown Little Rock is a great symbol of that.
“I dream about coming back to Little Rock and poaching some guys from Acxiom and getting space in the LaHarpe building, getting a ping pong table and a keg and going for it.”
When I said that sort of impulse might be an argument against the tech-park vision, Lowe said he understood the vision was fairly undefined. Which is true. “What I’m imagining is an incubator," he said. "That kind of tech park would be a definite magnet. Free rent and internet — that’s huge.”