Tierrabyte Credit: Katy Silva / San Antonio Report

If San Antonio is to live up to its goal of being an equitable city, openness must be reflected in the ways its leaders engage both data and citizens.

City Council last week took steps to ask difficult, but necessary questions about how the community wants to create an equitable budget for growth. In a recent Council B session led by the City’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, council members discussed balancing the budget with an “equity lens,” integrating data science into some of San Antonio’s most emotionally charged challenges, like gentrification and racial segregation.

Data science is simply a set of standardized tools that tell a story. The story that gets told, however, depends on how data is collected, who gets to use it, and whether or not it is shared – all challenges calling for equitable and transparent solutions.

To date, San Antonio ranks 31st among 127 U.S. cities in terms of making data sets available, or “open,” according to the U.S. City Open Data Census released by the Sunlight Foundation and the Open Knowledge Foundation.

Open data can be anything from publishing the City budget, to making real-time traffic data available, to sharing updated property values or health statistics. The Open Data Census ranks cities according to their “openness” based on criteria such as whether key data sets are available online for free, or available in a machine-readable format (a format streamlined for computer analysis of big data sets). You can see San Antonio’s ranking in full detail here.

Openness, according to the Open Knowledge Foundation, means that public data is easily available and accessible, reusable and redistributable, and that participation is universal in its development and use. The argument for opening data, such as crime data, is that everyone should have equal access to the stuff from which valuable information is extracted. Our society benefits more by sharing it than if it is kept proprietary, but a balance must be struck with security and privacy.

Illustration by Scott Ball.

This installment of Tierrabyte takes the pulse of open data in our city and examines which challenges our government, the nonprofit sector, and small businesses face when it comes to democratizing data in San Antonio.

Availability and Access

Anil Mangla, director of public health and research at the University of the Incarnate Word, has spent the last two years asking the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to provide him with data he once received annually.

DSHS has repeatedly denied Mangla’s request for anonymized wellness data for Bexar County including WIC data (nutritional information about women and children), emergency department data, and Medicaid claims, saying that he must provide an IRB form, which is typically filed when conducting a scientific study using human participants.

Mangla insists an IRB is not needed to request access to existing data sets for district-level evaluations of wellness.

“All we wanted was data for Bexar County,” Mangla said. “In public health this is very important because it gives us an idea of the mortality and wellness of our population. We can actually use that to identify hot spots in San Antonio and put our resources toward specific areas to help the population.”

Without this information, Mangla is unable to apply for federal grant funding for health-related research and projects, which require him to use data to demonstrate health challenges the city faces.

“I feel what’s going on is detrimental to the city as a whole,” he said.

Accessible data is critical to attracting research dollars to San Antonio and to supporting the work of small businesses and nonprofits.

For many local organizations, affordable access to data is vital to growth. These organizations increasingly find themselves having to choose between buying data and hiring new staff. Without expertise in data science, some organizations are vulnerable to paying lofty prices for inferior tools.

“Access to data should be ingrained into the equitable development conversation,” said Levar Martin, director of programs at the San Antonio-based National Association of Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB), which uses real estate data to develop strategies for equitable neighborhood development and small business growth in Latino neighborhoods across the country.

Martin relies primarily on CoStar for the majority of his organization’s data needs. The commercial real estate information company can charge upward of $30,000 for a year’s worth of data. For many nonprofits, that’s the equivalent of a staff member’s salary. Contracts negotiated with data-brokers heavily restrict the uses of data, which also prevents organizations from achieving their desired reach.

For some organizations in San Antonio, the high price of this type of data is worth it, because locating public data resources is so difficult.

San Antonio’s scattered data assets reflect general confusion about who owns data and what type of data should be open. The City officially supports a handful of open-data sites, including 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 State Attorney General.

“To be fair to San Antonio, there are very few places that have a central data repository, but in some cities you can find the majority of types of data in certain locations,” Martin said. “In San Antonio, it’s all over the place.”

Reuse and Redistribution

In today’s marketplace, the entity that owns the data gets to determine how it can be used. That leaves many cities that don’t have the expertise or resources to develop their own technology unable to control how the underlying data is accessed or shared.

Up until five years ago, the City captured its own satellite imagery and made it available for public use. Satellite imagery is required to make online maps and visualizations of geospatial data.

Google has since entered the market, outmaneuvering the City with its own high-quality satellite imagery services. Today, the City buys most of this imagery from Google, and as a result its use is tightly controlled.

Public rights to reuse those maps have been lost in the process, said Kevin Goodwin, the City’s chief technology officer.

“Because of that change in the market, our rights to this data is limited to publishing it as a background on our website, but we can no longer provide that [imagery] for public use,” he said.

However, the City has found some interesting workarounds by building public-private partnerships with tech companies, exchanging local data for software services.

The Transportation and Capital Improvements Department is piloting such a project this year in collaboration with the crowd-sourced traffic-navigation application Waze. The San Antonio Traveler Real-time Information Portal (SATRIP) plugs San Antonio’s transportation data and data from other local infrastructure – such as water-level monitoring systems – into the Waze platform. The result is a downloadable application that helps citizens avoid traffic and other road hazards such as flooding in real time. The app will be available for download in 2018.

Cities such as Columbus, Ohio, and Sacramento, Calif., have initiated public-private partnerships to build smart city infrastructure, including open data portals, electric vehicle charging systems, and wireless transmitters. Such projects were successful in part because city planners insisted that companies respect citizen privacy when it comes to collecting data needed to provide these services, and negotiated strict terms to ensure that the gold mine of data generated by those services remain a public asset.

Illustration by Scott Ball.

Universal Participation

Working closely with citizens at the San Antonio Public Library taught Emma Hernandez, the library’s digital inclusion fellow, that talking about open data is not relevant to many San Antonians who do not have the skills or access to technology needed to participate.

“As San Antonio shifts and changes, we should be taking into account all our community members and understanding what their needs are,” she said. “As much as we want data to be available, how do we make that a reality for all our neighborhoods?”

Access to data and the ability to utilize it depends largely on a person’s data literacy level, which often is linked to race, income, and education, Hernandez said. Austin’s 2015 Digital Inclusion Assessment by the Technology and Information Policy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin supports her notion.

Although a citywide assessment of digital literacy has yet to be completed for San Antonio, the 2013 American Community Survey found that San Antonio ranked in the bottom third of major U.S. cities in percentage of households with no internet access. Almost 50% of San Antonians report that a high school diploma is their highest level of educational achievement.

Craig Hopkins, San Antonio’s new chief information officer, articulated a similar vision on behalf of the City. “We have an obligation to provide [data], but also to understand our community, what their skills are, and what’s important in their lives. How do our citizens interact with us?”

Building Trust

Perhaps the first step toward building the equitable San Antonio that many City leaders residents envision, is to accelerate transparency and access to public data resources by building trust.

The looming rise of the internet of things, cloud computing, and machine learning have put huge and highly sensitive data sets in the hands of a small number of companies. While San Antonio may not be able to compete with these large-scale efforts, it can provide the public with hyperlocal data and find opportunities to fold these assets into public-private partnerships that deliver important services to constituents.

Meanwhile, the City needs to keep a close eye on how small organizations are being impacted by the private data market and develop alternative spaces to share comparable resources. It must also adopt a universal open data policy that keeps citizens’ data safe.

Simultaneously, data professionals can educate our public and politicians on how to use data to make informed decisions. The City must connect citizens to a network of information sharing that makes our city more efficient.

San Antonio has all the ingredients needed to democratize data in our city. The challenge is situating those tools in conversations that we feel deeply about – change, equity, access, transparency, privacy.

“If we’re serious about it,” Martin said, “it needs to be something we invest in as a collaborative effort.”

This collaborative effort can build the trust we need between government and community leaders to liberate San Antonio’s data so that we can face our most pressing challenges.

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Emily Royall

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