The San Antonio City Council’s Governance Committee on Wednesday approved a proposal for establishing an open data program for city, county, and other local area governments and municipally owned utilities with the goal of enhancing civic participation and improving policymaking decisions.

Council members Rebecca Viagran (D3), Ana Sandoval (D7), Roberto Treviño (D1), Rey Saldaña (D4), and Mayor Ron Nirenberg sent the proposal on to the newly established Innovation & Technology Committee for further consideration.

Treviño (D1) filed a council consideration request in November proposing that the San Antonio Information Technology Services Department (ITSD) begin building a “shared data program” that would allow for data and information sharing among all local area governments and utilities such as CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System (SAWS).

Assistant City Manager Maria Villagómez, and Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins presented the data-sharing request to the Governance Committee.

“We manage most data within the city, but we are not the only ones,” Villagómez said of the City Manager’s office. “We are focused on building a connected and resilient city.”

The formation of the Innovation & Technology Committee was officially announced by Ron Nirenberg last week. Its focus will be on growing smart-city solutions to San Antonio’s most pressing challenges, according to a recent press release.

The new committee will be chaired by Councilman Manny Pelaez (D8) and include council members from Districts 1, 3, and 5 and three private citizens representing the technology sector in San Antonio. Those members are Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf; Will Garrett, director of CyberSecurity San Antonio, a program housed in the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce; and DeAnne Cuellar, co-founder of the for-profit social enterprise Center of Gravity Strategies.

“Citizens in San Antonio need a better sense of how their government is working for them,” Treviño said.

Treviño talked about his recent trip to Tel Aviv, Israel, with Nirenberg, pointing out that the city’s typical voter turnout is 90 percent. That kind of turnout, Treviño said, reflects trust between the city government and its citizens, made possible in part by civic technology – applications built by citizens based on open data made available by the city.

Viagran pointed out that data ownership is important to consider when evaluating the success of emerging service platforms, like rideshare.

“Who owns mobility data?” she asked. “We’re really looking forward to this conversation.”

Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3)
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3) Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Local area governments often must purchase access to proprietary data from online platform companies such as Uber or Strava, that rely on citizen participation to generate it. Last summer, TxDoT agreed to purchase two years of local anonymized cycling and pedestrian data from Strava, a fitness mobile application for cyclists. The first year cost more than $100,000.

Currently, the City makes data publicly accessible through a handful of open data sites such as the SAPD Community Crime Mapper, the Transparency SA Data Portal, and a geographic information system (GIS) portal.

SAWS and the San Antonio River Authority have their own, separate data portals, while CPS Energy requires users to fill out a form to access open records after review by the Texas Attorney General.

Several nonprofit organizations host open-data portals that share public data, including the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation’s SAConnect portal, and a Data Explorer tool, developed by Community Information Now, a local nonprofit.

“There’s data that exists among different agencies that’s just not shared. And no method exists to do that,” Treviño said later in an interview, “There has to be a sense that we’re all in this together. We need people to feel engaged with the system.”

Developing that engagement will be one focus of the Innovation & Technology Committee, which also hopes to find solutions for San Antonio’s digital inclusion challenges.

“The digital divide tracks very well to the socioeconomic disparity in our city,” said Nirenberg. “We’ve created access, but we haven’t necessarily given people the opportunity through the use of devices and understanding, how technology can work for their benefit.

“… We want to make sure that [data sharing] is geared towards increasing participation with local government. Civic participation is part of the benefit of better utilization of data.”

A date for the first meeting of the Innovation & Technology Committee has been set for February 27th.

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Emily Royall

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.