In San Antonio eight agencies and departments have reached a new agreement to share data and speed up cross-agency partnerships. This forms part of a series of innovative governance measures that are driving forward the city’s innovation programme. By Jonathan Andrews
When Craig Hopkins joined the City of San Antonio in July 2017 as chief information officer, there was a set of core agencies–transport, water, energy, housing and others–that he knew he was going to have to work with.
At the time, all of his counterpart CIOs were fairly new to their positions as each agency had gone through a period of high turnover, which Hopkins felt could work to his advantage.
“We didn’t have anyone that had been sitting in that role for 15 years and telling everyone how it is all done. We didn’t have any of that baggage or history,” says Hopkins. “We were all having to learn ourselves.”
Hopkins decided to take the initiative on cooperation, organising an informal breakfast meeting with his peers. The meetings have now become a fixture for city managers.
“The breakfast is a way to build the relationship,” says Hopkins. “We now have a monthly breakfast that we pretty much stick to and that core group of five agencies has since expanded to eight. Behind all the smart city initiatives that I see going on around the world, I personally think that it’s the relationship between the agencies behind the scenes that doesn’t get any attention and that is probably one of our strongest points right now.”
Each month, the CIOs from the City of San Antonio, Bexar County Appraisal District, CPS Energy, San Antonio Housing Authority, San Antonio River Authority, San Antonio Water System, Edwards Aquifer Authority, and VIA Metropolitan Transit meet over breakfast to “talk about their shops”.
From those breakfasts, and after a call with the CIO of the State of Texas, the agencies created an enterprise agreement–copying the template from the State of Texas–to streamline and speed up data sharing that covers protocols, security, and privacy.
The City Council officially passed the agreement in March. Seven of the eight partners have agreed in principle with only official sign-offs pending.
“Behind all the smart city initiatives that I see going on around the world, I personally think that it’s the relationship between the agencies behind the scenes that doesn’t get any attention and that is probably one of our strongest points right now.” – Craig Hopkins, CIO, San Antonio
Hopkins says the beauty of the agreement is that whenever one agency wants to work with another, they need only go to the back of the document–a work addendum–pull off one page and put in some specifics about the project.
The need to go back through all the terms and conditions from scratch are no longer required. He urges that no agency gives up their rights to their data and is careful to add that none of the entities are building data warehouses. Transfer of data protocols and ownership requirements are in place where data can be transferred from one entity to the other.
“It basically supports the principle that the CIOs agree that whatever assets that we have in our agencies–and within the law–we will make those assets available to other partners,” he says.
The City of San Antonio owns the energy and water utility, but others are independent. Hopkins adds that the model could be used in other cities even if they do not have ownership of all agencies and utilities.
“Everybody still has their own boards, their own regulators and their own structure; that parent ownership didn’t force anybody to do anything,” he says. “Nor did it make the contractual relationship any different. We used that as a way to say we should be working together but it didn’t really matter as we were all treated as equal peers.”
Procedures for the protection of privacy and confidential information are in place through data security measures with clear processes for handling and sharing stored data, including standards of exchange of confidential information in an easy-to-use format.
Steve Young, Vice President of Technology and Innovation, VIA Metropolitan Transit, is affectionately known as the “old man” of the group–having been in his position the longest. He says that the agreement offers an exciting path forward for the city.
“We are looking to try and solve problems together and work cooperatively, when apparently that is far from the norm,” he explains. “When you take [all the] agencies and try to get everyone to agree on the same language, that’s not easy, especially when lawyers from each entity are involved. What we are doing in San Antonio is very unique and I don’t know that it should be.”
Young recalls how far the city has come as even three years ago there was very little interaction between the entities.
“There were little bits of cooperation here and there but not really a larger discussion about how we can all work together,” he says. “The best thing about this agreement is that we can move and execute much quicker now when we want to embark on a project together.”
Young is confident that the new agreement has vast potential for his role.“Transport is key because everyone has to get to their job, school, doctors, and so on,” he says.
He adds that he has already had informal discussions with the city’s housing authority to share data. The talks have explored the idea of providing transit passes for residents in lower income housing.
“Maybe there is an opportunity to provide transportation to help those residents get to their training programmes,” he says. “The opportunities are huge and a lot of them remain before us.”
Likewise, Hopkins has already eyed geographic information systems (GIS) as a good example of where shared data assets can be exploited to solve problems. He hopes to merge multiple layers of GIS data across agencies, sharing assets through GIS locations in a common way.
The data-sharing agreement is just one part of the broader approach San Antonio is taking. The SmartSA partnership (see box) is the city’s model for smart city governance, made up of the office of innovation, utilities and the local university.
Its purpose is to develop and collaborate on requests for proposals (RFPs), to procure smart city technology in the city’s three innovation zones.
“We have innovation zones designated as places to experiment, a customer engagement platform that we are all working on together, and this concept of sharing our assets [the data sharing agreement] is a part of the model,” explains Hopkins.
The idea of a vendor summit arose when the group were hammering out strategic collaborations to give a new approach to vendor engagement.
As an alternative to the standard request for information (RFI) process, the summit in January enabled local and national businesses, civic leaders, municipal partners, educators, and researchers to have a direct conversation with SmartSA partners regarding challenges faced across the city. These fixed on solutions in mobility, access to services, and sustainability.
“We were very focused on driving end user challenges and getting feedback from our residents about what they really needed in their lives to be solved,” says Hopkins. “It wasn’t just the technology and the data we were thinking about from our side.”
The group received more than 30 responses from vendors to help build their procurement strategy which, according to Hopkins, are in the process of being turned into an RFP this summer.
The city will issue a joint RFP with CPS Energy for smart streetlight pilots in the three innovation zones. The streetlights will include remote dimming controls, as well as environmental, mobility, and pedestrian safety sensing applications.
As it is early stages yet, the agencies are still finding out what would work best, as Young admits, purchasing in government is complex.
“It might make most sense for VIA to issue an RFP around autonomous vehicles or shuttles,” he says. “Whereas it might make more sense for CPS Energy and the city to do one for streetlights, but maybe VIA would still want to purchase some for our property.”
A successful component of the vendor summit was that the group did not want one vendor to “join the dots and take care of everything”. They were prepared to have multiple vendors, or one vendor acting as a platform provider working with multiple vertical silo providers. Hopkins says that although this can cause vendor management issues, he and the group felt it was the best way to go forward.
“We weren’t going to sign up and just hand over the keys,” says Hopkins. “We wanted [the vendors’] view of how they saw partnerships occurring across multiple sectors to solve our problems.”
As part of the CivTechSA umbrella–a partnership between San Antonio’s Office of Innovation and Geekdom–the city helps nurture and grow talent through a co-working space for local entrepreneur and technology communities.
It runs programmes such as a datathon from high school students, and an in-house start-up-in-residence initiative.
In 2018, San Antonio was the fastest growing city in the US. City leaders are mindful of collaborating to build for the future and nurture San Antonio’s home-grown talent, as many would have previously left for Austin and other Texan cities.
“There are smart cities 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0,” explains Hopkins. “1.0 was vendors telling you what to do, 2.0 was government telling you what to do, and 3.0 is co-creating with your residents.”
As the city expands, so too will the cross-agency agreements, including with education and healthcare, local businesses and even with the large army and air force presence in San Antonio. The next challenge will be to find a venue for his expanding breakfast club.
“I see greater collaboration across the city that goes past the municipal agencies, and more CIOs reaching out and helping each other in times of crisis,” says Hopkins. “That is how I see this collaboration grow as we go forward.”
SA 2020, SA Tomorrow, VIA Vision 2040, Brooks Master Plan, and the Medical Center Master Plan are a few of the strategic plans created to address the growth of the city. SmartSA will aim to synthesise these strategic plans and ultimately provide the platform and techniques as well as technology to make them a reality. SmartSA partners are to “provide a thoughtful and innovative approach” to solving the community’s challenges and form a unified governance structure to oversee SmartSA initiatives on:
- Access to services
- Innovation zones
“The goal of the city is to continue to provide quality services to our residents,” says the document. “In order to achieve this goal we must effectively work together to utilise resources and knowledge. SmartSA is the partnership that will help us achieve this goal. By working with our local businesses, transit providers and developers we will provide the platforms, innovative techniques and technology to make SmartSA a reality.”