In San Antonio, diverse community members are coming together to realize their vision of a better quality of life for residents by increasing the transparency, quality and accessibility of community data.

Community leaders across all different roles and settings value good data, and recognize that using it can make them more effective. But no single organization can do everything it takes to make a community good at using data. In San Antonio, progress toward usable, transparent data for all has only been achieved by gathering diverse stakeholders, and investing in the culture and processes that allow us to vision and plan as a community. Stakeholders are slowly coming to the shared recognition that building an online data repository is one important piece of the solution, but by no means the entire solution. Organizations across the community also need greater capacity to manage, analyze, understand, and use data, all grounded in a culture of valuing data to improve lives.

Interest in building a city-wide culture of data reaches back over two decades to the formation of the Alamo Area Community Information System (AACIS), a collaborative of over 30 public, private and nonprofit institutions that worked for years to democratize access to useful and neutral data. Over time AACIS transformed into today’s Community Information Now (CI:Now), which joined the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) in 2010.

But while community members have long been working bottom-up through AACIS and CI:Now to build San Antonio’s culture of data, new energy around that goal began coming from the top: the Office of the Mayor. Leilah Powell, then Chief of Policy in the Office of former Mayor Ivy R. Taylor, was among those people thinking about San Antonio’s data future. As Mayor Taylor put it at the April 2016 National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership meeting in San Antonio, “As a planner by training and a community development professional by practice…I know first-hand the importance of data. In order to craft effective policies, in order to measure the results we are achieving, in order to call attention to the issues our communities face or to our accomplishments, we need data.”

With support from the Mayor’s Office and the San Antonio Area Foundation, Leilah organized a visioning and brainstorming session around the question: “What would Data Nirvana look like in San Antonio?” Before the meeting, the Mayor’s Office and CI:Now came together to merge ideas and invite lists.

More than 50 people showed up for the session and raised incredibly varying challenges in accessing, sharing, and using data, as well as ideas about other people who should be at the table as we worked to address these challenges. As a starting point, those present thought there ought to be a table: a way to work together on a shared goal and challenges, some kind of structure and plan for driving San Antonio to its Data Nirvana.

Post Its brainstorming data needs in San Antonio at the civic tech and data table.

A small group of volunteers brainstormed around a strategic vision for data use in the community

We knew we couldn’t plan effectively with a group of over 50 people. A small group of volunteers were recruited to create a vision and a skeleton plan that could be further developed by a broader group of stakeholders. That small group established the Alamo Regional Data Alliance and later volunteered to serve as an Interim Steering Committee.

About half of the issues raised were technical in nature…But about half were not. They were values and principles.

It quickly became clear that the challenges this group needed to focus on were widespread and diverse. At the first meeting, about half of the issues raised were technical in nature, like “data privacy and security,” “data quality standards,” “data-sharing agreements,” “figure out the needed tools/services,” and “allow for multiple platforms.” But about half were not. They were values and principles: “Inclusion and transparency.” “Build on local assets.” “We must respect existing relationships.” “Minimize and/or work around turf issues.” “How do we build trust in our system?” “Remember that improving lives, not improving data, is the goal.”

These themes were built right into the vision, mission, guiding principles, and Charter of the Steering Committee. Perhaps more importantly, the Interim Steering Committee began to frame a new culture. Transparency must be genuine. Communication must be constant. The new culture must be re-established every time new people come to the table, and shored up when it takes a hit from conflicts and turf problems. While the shared vision is a reliable magnet and doesn’t require any selling, each new individual member and organizational partner must be “onboarded” both to ARDA’s shared Community Strategy and ongoing in-the-weeds operations.

The “right” way is the one that emerges when a wide range of people with different experiences and perspectives come together to work collaboratively on shared problems and opportunities.

Unspoken tensions have to be named and addressed. Some are inherent. They can be balanced day by day, but they cannot be solved once and for all. For example, some people prefer careful assessment and planning before any action is taken, while others lose faith in the initiative’s worth and viability if they don’t see quick and ongoing action. Some people want to see strong and directive leadership, while others distrust almost any degree of leadership. There is no single way to do this work right. The “right” way is the one that emerges when a wide range of people with different experiences and perspectives come together to work collaboratively on shared problems and opportunities.

While substantive decision-making and strategy rest with the Steering Committee and Workgroups, foundation-funded “backbone” staffing has been a critical support to these all-volunteer teams. Backbone staffing duties can vary, but for ARDA, lightening the burden on volunteers has meant handling meeting logistics and minutes, supporting internal and external communications, drafting policies and reports, and handling event planning and logistics.

Looking Ahead

ARDA is just getting started. The Steering Committee has 16 active members who were either democratically elected or subsequently appointed by that elected body. Four new workgroups launched in March 2018, with 25 to 30 people indicating interest in each one: (1) Engagement, (2) Local Data Sharing (including open data), (3) Data Use & Training, and (4) Ecosystem Assessment. The workgroups are focusing on meeting user needs, as expressed through “user stories” gathered over the past 18 months.“

In the meantime, an investment from the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, a fund of the San Antonio Area Foundation, ensures that ARDA has backbone staffing via CI:Now, equivalent to about one FTE throughout 2018. Steering Committee members see that many projects can be funded not just through grants and large cash contributions, but also through smaller partner in-kind donations of staff time, server space, meeting venues, supplies, and other needs.

We have a tremendous amount of work to do. But the fundamentals are falling into place: people are working together to generate ideas, dismantle barriers, solve problems, and – in time – to realize a vision of a better quality of life for our community, where data-informed decisions and actions somewhere along the way just became our “business as usual.”