City of San Antonio Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins gives his input during a San Antonio Innovation and Technology Committee meeting in February 2018.
City of San Antonio Chief Information Officer Craig Hopkins gives his input during a San Antonio Innovation and Technology Committee meeting in February 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The newly-created Innovation and Technology Committee explored fresh technology solutions for city services during its first meeting Tuesday. But while San Antonio moves forward with plans for innovation, some committee members are concerned that longstanding equity and access challenges in their districts still need to be addressed.

The committee was created by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and focuses on policies and initiatives that could enhance the City’s ability to tap into innovative ideas that could improve quality of life for residents.

Council and community members on the committee reviewed several items, including a municipal-wide data sharing portal, so-called “innovation zones” for testing smart technologies, and a plan for autonomous vehicles.

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

“I want to make sure [these solutions] are inclusive of all of San Antonio,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), “My residents are just trying to find opportunities so they can apply for jobs online.”

In 2018, a new SmartSA program will focus on mobility and access to city services. This program is the result of a “Smart City Readiness” workshop and visioning session held last year that hostedcity executives from various departments.

“If we start to think about access for services from an ‘outside -in’ perspective … and build empathy for our customer … we’d actually build experiences for the event that they’re in,” said Craig Hopkins, the City’s chief information officer. He used the example of how the public might interact with an online bill-payment portal.

Public officials and private industry leaders used different terms to describe similar concepts in the meeting. Hopkins spent several years holding various management positions at USAA, including chief Strategy Officer and Customer Experience Officer.

“Customer,” “user,” and “constituent” were used by committee members and presenters during the meeting to describe those who would access these services.

“You mentioned customers … it’s about the people,” said Councilman Roberto Trevino (D1). “I want us to push the envelope here. Innovation is not solely about technology, its about the mission.”

Hopkins agreed, but added, “[Innovation] is for whoever the end user that gets the value of it is.”

A data sharing and data management program between the San Antonio Water System (SAWS), City Public Service Energy (CPS), the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), VIA, and City departments would also be led by SmartSA.

The program would ensure the accuracy, consistency, and efficiency of public services as well as the privacy and security of sensitive data, according to Hopkins. The City’s current system is largely inefficient in the eyes of Councilman Pelaez, who noted in an interview with the Rivard Report that some agencies still rely on a paper-based system.

“The idea is to create a data lake that we can dive into easily,” said Pelaez, “Nobody’s ever been able to figure out how to dive into that lake and emerge out of it so we can innovate.”

That pool of data, however, has its risks, said CyberSA CEO Will Garett.

“There’s always concern if you put too much data in one area,” said Garett, who leads CyberSA, a cybersecurity group founded by the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, “but if done effectively, it actually enhances security.”

Will Garrett
CyberSA CEO Will Garrett and Dirk Elmendorf, a co-founder of Rackspace, share their ideas during the San Antonio Innovation and Technology commission meeting.

Garrett is one of three community members who serve on the committee, including DeAnne Cuellar, principal consultant of Center of Gravity Strategies, and Dirk Elmendorf, a co-founder of Rackspace. Typically these committees are comprised of five Council members.

SmartSA proposed a governance structure at the meeting that included working groups for mobility, access to services, environment and utilities, and infrastructure and data.

Of these, according to Hopkins, infrastructure was critical.

“None of this works until the infrastructure is in place; data, fiber, connectivity, and cybersecurity,” he said. 

The proposed governance structure for SmartSA initiative.
The proposed governance structure for SmartSA initiative.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5)  said her district lags behind access to broadband infrastructure and high speed internet.

“I’ve been here for five years and for five years I’ve been saying, ‘we don’t have access to broadband,’”  Gonzales said. “I hope that at the risk of concentrating on innovation that we don’t forget to do the nuts and bolts of what we should have been concentrating on a long time ago.”

The Committee also reviewed a plan presented by Hopkins for several “innovation zones” throughout the city that would be used as testing grounds for SmartSA projects.

Hopkins cited Dallas’ West End as an example of an area that uses public-private partnerships to test emerging technologies that fuel “smart city” projects where city services like parking, water management or transportation are experienced in tandem with mobile applications that generate data for city agencies.

“The things you mentioned, we don’t have as a result of the lifetime of disinvestment [in the area],” said Gonzalez, whose district includes much of the Westside.

The innovation zones for SmartSA were presented at the Innovation and Technology Committee meeting.
Potential innovation zones at Brooks, downtown (Central Business District), and the Medical Center were presented to the Innovation and Technology Committee meeting. Credit: Courtesy / Office of Innovation

Gonzales encouraged City staff to re-evaluate the locations of the zones. Hopkins identified Brooks, downtown, and the Medical Center  as potential innovation zones – which are identified by the SA Tomorrow comprehensive plan as activity centers.

The committee also received an update from TCI Assistant Director Arthur Reinhardt about the San Antonio Real-Time Traveler Information Portal (SATRIP). As part of the City’s 2017 budget, two transportation corridors – Blanco Road (between Wilderness Oak and Loop 410) and Military Drive (between Bynam and I-37) – were selected as sites for deploying new traffic sensors and technologies that detect pedestrians crossings.

Reinhardt also reported that San Antonio has joined several Texas cities in the Texas Automated Vehicles Proving Grounds Partnership, that allows automated vehicles to be tested on Texas roads.

The committee approved a proposal for the City to participate in MetroLab Network, a national city-university collaborative focused on urban data and innovation. The proposal will head to City Council for final consideration.

Discussion about the citywide data sharing portal and innovation zones will continue during the committee’s next session. Both committee members and city staff expect to find a balance between disruptive technology emerging from the private sector, and the responsibilities of government.

“[Cities] don’t have hard power, [they] have soft power [over technology companies].” Elmendorf told the Rivard Report after the meeting. “I think for our city it’s better to use what we have. Build a relationship, be constructive and guide.”

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