Partners in Resilience: Knight Foundation and Data Equity for the City of San José
By: Julia Chen
In August 2020, the Knight Foundation granted a $60,000 initial investment to MOTI. In less than a year since, the data equity pilot team has grown from one Harvard Business School Leadership Fellow to 20 individuals spanning partnerships from San José State University to mission-driven nonprofits like Coding It Forward and data science bootcamps. The groundwork we’ve laid through early presentations at academic and industry conferences has helped us establish a profile as a reputable team in civic technology. We’ve been able to build an organic (but staggering in its caliber) talent pipeline into the City that is representative of the communities we serve, with many of us having nontraditional backgrounds into data science and underrepresented in the industry at large.
It is not only the rigor of our analytical work, but also the motivations of the individuals doing it — an interdisciplinary team of data scientists, storytellers, and community engagement champions — that make our vision of building, unifying, and transforming the City’s data capabilities possible. Changing the culture of an established organization, especially in the public sector, can be a tall order, but the successes of the data equity team has made the possibility of a data-driven decision culture that centers equitable outcomes tangible, and not just another act of innovation theater.
The lightweight and adaptable framework that guides our analyses allows our team to be responsive to the varying needs of each City department we’ve partnered with thus far. Our ongoing data projects include:
- San José Downtown Association (SJDA): Connected through the Knight Foundation, SJDA is our first project with an organization outside of City Hall. While the data work is still in its exploratory phase, we hope to use our insights to make Downtown San José more inclusive and vibrant for all by leveraging data to understand the makeup of business owners within SJDA zip codes who received SBA COVID-19 relief; identify barriers to access for business owners who did not receive federal assistance; and help small businesses move towards equitable recovery.
- Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services (PRNS): Our most mature project to date, our team has analyzed scholarship data to make it possible for PRNS executives to adopt policy changes ensuring that San José residents in any neighborhood, regardless of race and gender, have equitable access to the scholarships and services that benefit them most.
- Open Data Project: Conducted in collaboration with DataKind, our Open Data Project is taking San José’s open data program and portal and making it easier for residents and City officials to access data and power equity-focused work. The team is also developing a data equity playbook and open data standard that can be replicated in other cities.
- San José 311: We are working with SJ311, the city’s non-emergency service system, to improve data quality and user experience across all neighborhoods. We want all who live, work, and play in San José to be empowered to use the system and that services are delivered in a timely and equitable fashion.
- Homeless programs: We are helping the Housing Department assess how equitable access is to their grant programs, based on race.
More than our methodology, it’s the human stories behind our work that have enabled our progress: the SJSU graduate students creating interactive dashboards so PRNS can better understand how to make their Citywide Scholarship programs accessible to all San Joséans; the City departments that have welcomed us as extensions of their staff; the community organizations sharing their candid feedback and spurring a dialogue on how we can craft better solutions for the people we serve.
Having the Knight Foundation as a vocal advocate and supporter has been pivotal to our rapid growth. We wouldn’t have been able to move so quickly and with such conviction without their mentorship! Thank you to Chris Thompson and all at Knight who have and continue to see a future for our team and MOTI’s work, broadly. Data transformation within municipal government is not only achievable, but worth sustaining, and it takes longer term investments from internal City stakeholders — commitments to future building that cannot be achieved through grants alone. The Mayor’s now-approved budget vision, in which he declares the need to “squarely confront data, rather than pointing at anecdotes,” continues to be proven project by project, commitment to change by commitment to change.
By cultivating a culture in City Hall that values the impetus for progress, and a willingness to reflect on historical performance, we are setting a precedent for the use of data in public service to be an empowering — not limiting — force.
Julia Chen is the Project Manager & Communications Lead for the Data Equity team.