Local Hero: Lunch with Eric Romero

Local Hero: Lunch with Eric Romero


By Amy Alexander

It’s the kind of March day you’d like to bottle and pop open on a stifling July afternoon–seventy-odd degrees, piercing blue skies, just the right amount of snap in the air. Eric Romero and I have the best seat at Parrain’s Seafood Restaurant, out on the broad, breezy porch, amid the flinty timbre of the city birds we sometimes take for granted.

On a less hectic day, Romero would cook his own fish from the waters near his grandfather’s camp in Grand Isle. But for now, a little bit of shrimp barbeque and brisket will do. I’ve heard that fishermen like to keep their secrets and I ask him if that’s true.

“Nah,” he says. “I’ll share what I know.”

Along with fishing, Romero is passionate about information. As the director of information services for the Baton Rouge city-parish, he has spent the past few years figuring out the best ways to share the city’s data with its citizens.

The city offers a collection of databases and search portals that allow anyone to look up, for instance, crime statistics, traffic patterns and future plans. You can learn where a raindrop that falls on your street is going to end up.

“I love looking at seeing how we can use data to build solutions or make decisions,” he says. “It’s truly the public’s data, because we are using taxpayer money to collect that data.”

Romero and his team have modeled places such as Raleigh, San Francisco and New York City in creating this virtual infrastructure. Baton Rouge has consistently earned a Top 10 ranking within the U.S. Open Data Census over the past few years.

Growing up on the West Bank of New Orleans, Romero, the son of a welder at the Avondale Shipyard, dreamed of the sea. Shrimp, sharks, seahorses, stingrays and turtles swam in his imagination. He decided he would become a marine biologist.

But he was also a practical kid, and when a mentor told him there was more money in computers, and that they were becoming the backbone of every sort of science, including the study of water and the fish that live in it, he charted a new course at Nicholls State University.

A fan of Pac-Man and those old-time clunky machines of the 1980s, it felt natural to pursue programming. He joined the city-parish 27 years ago. In that time, his profession has morphed rapidly. Romero reaches for the latest technology. But it’s important to him that everyday people can benefit from the work he does.

“He is a very earnest and honest and open leader,” says John Snow, a partner at management consulting firm Emergent Method who met Romero while they were strategizing how to increase the flow of information so city leaders could map out their ideas and responses accurately.

It’s a rare talent, adds Snow, for an IT maven to be able to step back and consider how technology impacts everyone–from kids to hipsters to retirees. Romero honors his elders. His grandfather was a Cajun who celebrated Christmas and the beginning of shrimp trawling season with the same amount of childlike glee.

My own grandfather was a fisherman too. He cast flies in the waters of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains of Utah. He liked to ask a lot of questions. Maybe that’s where I get it from.

Plugging search terms into the city’s collection of information portals gives me a rush. I like seeing what I can learn about the earth beneath my feet and the water that runs behind my house.

I visit Romero’s portal to our parish. I look up all of the car crashes that happened on my block in the past year and through time. I scope out which streets in Baton Rouge have the most fender benders and make a mental note for my morning commute. I look to see where the sidewalks actually end.

There will always be hand-wringers who believe that things are only getting worse on their streets. Romero hopes that the facts his search portals provide will add balance and structure to those emotions. If that happens, focused advocacy and appropriate shifts in planning and policy can follow.

Much to my surprise, Romero is a fan of a certain popular app where neighbors can share everything from kvetches about post-St. Patrick’s Day Parade bead refuse to lost rabbits and random security camera footage. When people talk about issues they have on their personal plot of city land, Romero says, that is priceless information that can build a better infrastructure.

Recently, the city took an inventory of its catch basins, places where rain travels after a storm. Preventive maintenance of these structures is a vital and constant task for the city, and facts about them help crews plan ahead.

That brings us back to water.

At his grandfather’s fishing camp, there are marshes that prefer to keep their secrets. They are dark and filled with a rich sediment that keeps the animals that live there healthy and happy. In the fall, the bull redfish makes its migration out to sea, and Romero and his family have long looked forward to night fishing, dropping a line in and, with miraculous speed, seeing it bend with a bounty.

At my own grandfather’s camp, you can see all the way to the bottom of the lakes where sparkling fish cast shimmery shadows.

In information technology and wetlands, there is a time and a place for both the opaque and the crystalline. When it comes to the flow of data in a civic sphere, Romero believes, the clearer the better. Yet not all information, he explains, should be exposed. There will always be private details that need to stay secure. This calls for a different mindset, an obsessive series of digital checks and balances that Romero maps in his mind.

He recently shared how to create a password that is hacker-proof. Avoid the obvious, like birthdays and ordered numerical sets. If people understand the value of securing their programmable toasters, he says, they will be more eager to contribute to security efforts on a civic level.

“He is a collaborator and he is a communicator,” Snow says.

Being able to move back and forth from transparency to security requires an agile, fluid mind. It’s stressful.

To decompress, Romero heads to Grand Isle with his family. Both kids are veteran anglers. Romero flips through photographs of them holding up fish that are almost as big as they are, grins even bigger.

The camp his grandfather built offers no more than an old TV with an antenna. No Wi-Fi. It’s quiet as the moon rises over ripples and cypress. Hurricane Ida was merciless when it ripped through Grand Isle, but the Romero camp still stands.

Romero’s grandfather taught him to take care of the things you build. There will always be something to fix, some piece of weathered wood that needs replacing or some section of roofing that requires a closer look. Ask the people you care about to lend a hand. Feed them well after.

Building a world-class digital infrastructure isn’t much different.

Snow says Romero’s gift is connecting people with the tools he and his team design. Romero pursues every opportunity to talk about what he is building–at libraries, in front of civic groups, and on social media.

“I want people to be engaged,” he says. “It’s about building a relationship.”

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