San Antonio Unveils Committee To Address Technology Issues

Feb 28, 2018

San Antonio’s Smart City program, also called SmartSA, uses emerging technology and data “to improve people’s lives,” according to the city’s website.

Since the beginning in October 2016, the program, run by the city’s Office of Innovation and its Internet Technology Services department, had no regular policy guidance from City Council. That changed Tuesday afternoon with the city unveiling its newest committee focused on innovation and technology.

Jose De La Cruz, with the Office of Innovation, and Craig Hopkins, IT services head, presented an update on the achievements of SmartSA and two long-term programs aimed at how people travel around San Antonio and how residents can or can’t access city services.

Council members listened, then proceeded to push their own ideas of what city staff should be pursuing.

Councilman Roberto Treviño wanted more done with the collection and sharing of open data.

“This stuff needs to happen now,” he said about the lack of transparency from the San Antonio Water System, Bexar county, and especially the Bexar County Appraisal District, which, he added, was a “glaring omission” from SmartSA’s partner list.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales wanted more broadband infrastructure for traditionally excluded areas like her Westside district. She said shoring up the rest of the city needs to be a top priority.

“When we have a client, maybe like a Rackspace,” Gonzalez said,  “they can’t even begin to begin to invest in the near Westside. We don’t have sufficient broadband.”

While each of the council members wanted different things, they all wanted more tangible results, quicker.

Jose De La Cruz speaks with committee member DeAnne Cuellar ahead of Tuesday's meeting.

“Our job is to deliver those reality checks sometimes,” said District 8 Councilman and committee chair Manny Pelaez.

“Sometimes we have to pump the brakes and make sure everyone in the community is on the same page,” he said.

Citizen committee member and Rackspace co-founder Dirk Elmendorf added: "There are big goals around: How do we include all citizens? How do we bring technology to everybody? But then there's the crashing reality of the blocking and tackling stuff that we struggle with."

While De La Cruz disagreed with the “reality check” description, he said he came out of the meeting energized and with more focus.

He also disagrees that his office and SmartSA haven’t been given council guidance, listing two different budget working groups they have heard from council members on.

De La Cruz said it may be that council members don’t know the full breadth of staff efforts. He added they have done much of the legwork on the open data project that Trevino wanted, and he acknowledged Gonzales’ request for more done around digital inclusion.

“I think a lot of that can be couched in the access to services (project),” he said

Hopkins added that he wasn't thrown by the feedback.

"We all want to get things done to change lives of people in the community, but you also have to plan for the disrupters ands what's coming,” Hopkins said. “The danger is you can't do just one. You have to do both as you go forward.”

The committee sent City Council proposals on innovation zones, where new infrastructure technologies can be tested. Council will also vote on whether or not the city should apply to join Metrolab, an organization that partners cities and universities for public data and innovation projects.

Paul Flahive can be reached at paul@tpr.org or on Twitter @paulflahive