Inside San Antonio's Office of Innovation, which plans to bridge the digital divide with smart technology and infrastructure

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San Antonio, Texas
San Antonio, Texas. Shutterstock
  • The Office of Innovation in San Antonio, Texas, is working to advance technology and infrastructure.

  • Created in 2007, the office is expanding Wi-Fi access for kids with Connected Beyond the Classroom.

  • A smart streetlight program was also implemented to save money and energy and collect valuable data.

  • This article is part of a series focused on American cities building a better tomorrow called "Advancing Cities."

Digital inclusion is an issue that the city of San Antonio, Texas, started to address before the COVID-19 crisis sent people to work and learn from home full time.

In 2019, the city's Office of Innovation kicked off a digital-divide assessment of residents. "We really wanted to get to the granular level of our residents and identify where the gaps are based on broadband connectivity, based on access to devices, and based on digital literacy," Brian Dillard, the city's chief innovation officer and a third-generation San Antonio native, told Insider.

Brian Dillard
Brian Dillard. Brian Dillard

The survey revealed that about 20% of households lacked access to broadband internet and inspired the launch of Connected Beyond the Classroom.

Along with expanding broadband access, San Antonio and the Office of Innovation have other initiatives in the works to advance technology and infrastructure in the city. Here's a look at some of these programs.

The office was created to improve the quality of life through technology

The Office of Innovation was created in 2007. At first, the office's "bread and butter" was process improvement, Dillard said. That meant evaluating the city's 40 departments, identifying inefficient and ineffective procedures, conducting assessments, and implementing solutions.

In 2017, it launched SmartSA, a smart-cities program in partnership with local utility companies CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System, the VIA Metropolitan Transit Authority, the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), and others set on improving quality of life in San Antonio through data, technology, and community.

"It was really about making sure that we're looking to the future, that we're preparing for the oncoming technologies or solutions, and making sure we're ahead of the curve here," said Dillard, who first joined the Office of Innovation as smart cities administrator in 2018 and soon was promoted to chief innovation officer.

The office's program, CivTechSA, is a partnership with local coworking space Geekdom to engage students, companies, and the tech community to grow "civically minded tech talent." Its Innovation Academy trains subject-matter experts from other city departments to do the jobs of the Office of Innovation to expand the city's capacity to take on more projects and upskill talent.

Last year, the R&D League was added to research new ideas and use data to create policies. The city is partnering with UTSA, insurance firm USAA, and Southwest Research Institute on the program.

Bridging the digital divide is a central focus

With UTSA, the office started surveying residents about broadband connectivity, access to devices, and digital literacy in December 2019. The survey concluded the following February; then, the pandemic hit.

"We were lucky enough to be ahead of the curve in doing this report," Dillard said. "When everyone got focused on digital inclusion, we had a roadmap right in front of us to identify what it looks like for the city of San Antonio and the region."

The city council approved $27 million to execute the Connected Beyond the Classroom program last year with a goal of connecting 20,000 students in 50 of San Antonio's most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Infrastructure was needed to make the program work. Dillard said the city leveraged its existing fiber network and expanded it into neighborhoods by mounting monopole antennas and small cell towers on libraries, fire stations, and schools to blast out the signal. School districts received devices to distribute to students, which provided a wireless connection to enable students to log into a school district's network from home.

The next phase is to expand into more neighborhoods. Dillard said the agency is working with the private sector on a citywide digital equity plan.

A smart streetlight pilot program will save money and energy and offer valuable insights

San Antonio recently debuted a six-month smart streetlight pilot program in partnership with CPS Energy, AT&T, and Itron. Streetlights in three areas of the city were upgraded to be controlled remotely. Research shows smart streetlights save cities money and energy.

The streetlights are also fitted with sensors to monitor and collect data on air quality, heat detection, noise, parking, and flooding. San Antonio is home to several flood plains, Dillard said, so the technology will be used to detect rising waters early on.

Gathering and analyzing data is a key aspect of the project. Dillard said the data will help the city identify which technology provides value to residents so it can be replicated in other neighborhoods.

Public input identifies community problems and which projects to pursue

Community engagement drives much of the Office of Innovation's work, Dillard said. Surveying residents helps identify local challenges and choose which projects to focus on.

Pre-pandemic, they launched the SmartSA Sandbox, pop-up events where residents could test smart technologies. The first event in February 2020 featured demos of autonomous vehicles, artificial intelligence, robotics, and smart sensor technology. Dillard said he hopes to hold more events in the future.

"The sandbox was intended to rotate throughout the city and engage residents before we start deploying this technology," he said.

Interactive digital kiosks are also installed throughout San Antonio, giving residents and visitors access to wayfinding information and details about transit systems and city services. The kiosks also provide free Wi-Fi.

Discussing these projects with the public in an easily understood way is critical, as technology and innovation can be unfamiliar and intimidating subjects.

"When it comes to city government, the public really looks at streets and sidewalks and police and fire," Dillard said. "They don't really look to the city government for innovation, but we're building our rapport with the public continuously."

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