San Antonio’s SmartSA Interlocal Data Sharing Agreement not only helps streamline services delivery, but it also promotes data transparency, builds trust and fosters innovation among the partners.
Officials in San Antonio, Texas, have seen systemic change in support of innovation in the three years since they approved the SmartSA Interlocal Data Sharing Agreement, which makes it easier for partner organizations to leverage data and technology for shared projects.
For example, in Septembe 2020, the city began a pilot test of smart streetlight controls in its three innovation zones. Working with CPS Energy, the municipal electric utility that serves San Antonio, and Itron, an energy management company, the city installed 15 smart streetlight solutions, affecting 45 streetlights. Since the pilot ended in March 2021, SmartSA has been evaluating results for use cases such as parking sensors, air quality, temperature, ambient noise and flooding. A decision about moving forward is expected this fall, said Emily Royall, San Antonio’s smart city administrator.
The data-sharing agreement facilitated sharing streetlight location and inventory data with the city, Royall said. “You might think would be really straightforward, but actually in the United States, it’s a pretty complex environment. Some of them are privately owned, some of them are owned by utilities, some of them are owned by the city,” she said. “It’s really important for us to be able to correlate that information.”
In 2021, the agreement was ratified across eight public agency partners – CPS Energy, VIA Metropolitan Transit, San Antonio River Authority, Edwards Aquifer Authority, San Antonio Housing Authority, San Antonio Water System, Bexar County Appraisal District and the University of Texas at San Antonio. The Office of Innovation’s Smart Cities team manages the agreement.
The idea for the agreement started with the chief information officers for each of those agencies, Royall said. They met informally to determine how as partners they could create smart cities for the future. “They agreed that the first stage toward doing that was ensuring that we can share data across our agencies to improve our services and to ensure that we can do that in a privacy-preserving and secure way.”
Each partner has an information coordinator who serves as the point of contact for making and responding to requests through a technical transfer and security protocol that adheres to security and privacy guidelines that the partners agreed to and that also aligns with established city, state and federal regulations. The city partnered with Google to build the software-as-a-service-type platform with a great deal of customization.
“We are now figuring out how we can operationalize the agreement with digital infrastructure, meaning powering that with a data-sharing platform that is accessible by our partners and [that] takes all of those procedures in the agreement and just bakes them into the user-centered design of the platform,” Royall said, adding that her team is also looking into making a catalog of data that has already been classified as accessible to the partners.
She said the agreement has already brought several benefits for the city. The biggest is motivating agencies to share data. “As these agencies start to use the agreement and the protocols that are in it, they’re realizing that they need to make organizational changes internally to power or support data sharing,” Royall said. “A lot of public agencies are not structured for transparency and exchange of information in that way; they’re very insular. So, we’re seeing now our partners start to innovate on how they could create structures inside of their organizations to fast track or allow for data sharing to happen.”
Second, the agreement has fostered a greater willingness for partners to trust one another, which opens more dialogue and facilitates additional innovation. Third, it presents an opportunity to think differently about how the city serves residents.
“A perennial problem is that people have to know which agency and more specifically which department in that agency they have to go to, to request a service,” Royall said. “We’re among a growing group of cities that feel it should be the other way around.”
A fourth benefit is streamlining service delivery and coordination of services. For instance, every agency has a different system for resident addresses. “We’re all serving the same people, but we don’t have systems that talk to each other about who those people are, where they live, where their properties are,” she said. “Being able to streamline that and basically create interoperable addressing systems is one example of something these partners can come together to do to improve how we communicate about the customers or the citizens that we serve.”
An effort like this is not without its challenges. The biggest one for San Antonio has been building trust across historically siloed agencies, Royall said. One way the agreement addresses that is by allowing every partner agency to decline a data request. “At any time, any agency can say, ‘That’s not something that we’ll provide,’” she said. “That really helped bring everyone to the table because it was understood across all partners that you have the ability to reject any requests -- no questions asked.”
This month, Smart Cities Connect recognized the Office of Innovation and SmartSA Partners as one of the country’s most transformative smart city projects.
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.