Harnessing data to build better local government

A quiet shift is underway in local government in San Antonio and other major cities in Texas. The movement, with the support of mayors and city managers, is led by young, tech-savvy professionals who believe citizens can be better served through the use of smart data and a new commitment to a more great transparency and collaboration.

This cohort of talented leaders also believe that smart and proactive use of technology is essential to protect government infrastructure and services that remain highly vulnerable. Winter storm Uri showed local leaders the vulnerability of the city’s energy infrastructure. What if state-sanctioned hackers, rather than nature, were targeting strategic assets here?

These and other challenges were the subject of roundtables Thursday and Friday in Port San Antonio, the hub of the city‘s growing cybersecurity industry. The event was the fourth Texas Smart Cities Summithoused in the brand new $70 million Tech Port Center and Arena.

Much of the programming focused less on threats and more on opportunities, particularly on how city governments and other local public bodies can break out of their bureaucratic silos and use data and technology to better serve and connect. with the citizens.

The city of San Antonio Innovation Office exists since 2007, but its size and importance have increased in recent years. It’s now led by chief innovation officer Brian Dillard, a military veteran and Eastside native who returned home during the downtown San Antonio decade and joined the city team in 2018.

Two years earlier, Emily Royall, a native of San Antonio, returned home with an advanced degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to accompany her undergraduate degrees from the University of Texas. After a stint as chief data officer of the Rivard Report, she took a position in the Office of Innovation at the same time Dillard was hired. Today, she is the administrator of the smart city. Both exemplify the type of “brain gain” the city has achieved in recent years and the type of highly skilled young professionals attracted to the local government departments where they work to drive change and innovation.

Royall and his colleagues were tasked with organizing this year’s smart city summit, enlisting peers from across the state to give the Tech Port Center and Arena exactly the kind of forward-thinking event the Port CEO San Antonio, Jim Perschbach, and his team hope to attract year -approximately.

The 2022 Smart Cities Summit was held at the new Tech Port Center and Arena in Port San Antonio. Credit: Courtesy/Mitch Hagney

The next few years will determine the success of these young professionals as San Antonio emerges from the pandemic and strives to address digital inequality and a host of other challenges.

Experts from San Antonio and other major Texas cities who gathered here last week have appeared in a number of live streams round tables which will be available for later viewing. The panelists touched on a range of challenges and opportunities, far more than I can cover in a single column. But I left confident that technology will continue to provide opportunities for government to better serve citizens.

The biggest challenge these change agents face may be in their own workplaces – the internal silos operating in the City of San Antonio, CPS Energy, SAWS, VIA Metropolitan Transit, the San Antonio Housing Authority and the San Antonio River Authority. These local government entities have come together to form the Smart SA partnership to better collaborate and identify efficiencies and new ways to engage citizens.

Bexar County was noticeably absent from the summit and is not part of the partnership.

Change is difficult and the practices of the last century are still common throughout local government. Look how long it took VIA to allow passengers to pay with anything other than exact change. I remembered how slowly the government reacted two weeks ago when a notice from the city arrived in the post at our home on Arsenal Street. My wife Monika and I were notified to go to the City’s Parking Division office at 400 N. St. Mary’s St. to get new residential parking tags for our vehicles.

In the past, we’ve made the trip to the city-owned downtown parking lot only to be told we couldn’t pay the fee with a credit card or through a cash app. I asked staff why residents can’t use smartphones to pay and download a new tag, a question that drew blank stares. How long will it take for Dillard, Royall and their colleagues to comb through local government departments to modernize systems and processes?

Those working in the Office of Innovation or its equivalent offices within other local government entities will likely encounter resistance at nearly every turn. Citizens deserve the protections that technology can provide, as well as greater transparency and access to meaningful data. Local government leaders will visibly have to embrace such change for those with the skills, talent and will to really make things happen.

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