The idea for something like an Alamo Regional Data Alliance isn’t new, and neither is the sweat equity to make it a reality. The Alamo Area Community Information System (AACIS) was organized starting in the mid-1990s. About 30 different public and private organizations – nonprofits, philanthropy, universities, local government – came together and worked for years to build a local “data commons” and democratize access to trustworthy, neutral, and useful data.
Over time AACIS gave rise to the nonprofit local data intermediary Community Information Now, but the broad community collaboration – the same kind of collaboration we’re building now – didn’t survive. We spoke to Mary Ellen Burns, Pilar Oates, and Steve Blanchard (AACIS co-founders who remain involved to this day) about what lessons our local history can teach us about data collaboration in 2017.
What made people come together around data in the first place in the 90s?
Pilar: The City of San Antonio was now a big enough city that it needed a trusted portal of data/information. The Alamo Area information System (AACIS), as we were known back then, envisioned this portal as one that would guide and provide the end user – by which we meant the ordinary citizen or consumer, the grant proposal writer, or the data professional – with meaningful and relevant data according to their need.
Mary Ellen: As funders, we were receiving proposals from community-based organizations for programs designed around inaccurate data. How could we expect these hard working nonprofits to address the needs of specific populations without access to quality data? In the absence of good data, how could we expect to improve the quality of life for our community? Good data was technically available, but access to it was extremely limited and typically at a cost beyond the budgets of most.
You couldn’t just go to a web query system and download data back then.
Steve: That’s right. But there was a confluence of energy and interest around the idea of using the newly emerging internet as a tool to maximize the distribution of data as a resource to the community without political intent. We called it 'democratizing' the data.
Pilar: Our mission back then was to allow for all voices to be heard. We were experiencing a "digital divide" between those who lived in under-served and impoverished communities and those that owned computers or had access to and knowledge of technology. For those that had access, informed decisions could be made through the use of neutral, high-quality data. For those that didn't have access, we offered training on how to use computers and access technology.
You had an ambitious plan. What would you say was your biggest win?
Mary Ellen: Information is power and each institution was initially concerned that sharing information would somehow diminish their organization’s role and purpose. We were able to navigate the group from 'me to we', but two things had to happen for that to be possible. First, we ironed out a shared vision we could agree on about how much more we could accomplish together than alone. Second, we secured a commitment from all partners that the system would be collectively designed at all levels – everything from metadata standards to sharing credit to cost-sharing structures, with an assurance that each partner’s policies and practices would be honored.
Pilar: And we’re still here in the form of CI:Now and ARDA! In times when we deal with "fake news" and political spins on data to support partisan or divided causes, it is more important than ever for everyone in the community to have access to data they trust.
Whether you see it as a win or just hard-earned wisdom, what were the most important lessons you learned?
Steve: That while there is a recognition of the need for an initiative like this, it doesn’t happen without considerable effort to form consensus on principle of organization and agreement on the technical aspects of data management.
Mary Ellen: And a united effort like this requires a caretaker. The ‘care and feeding’ of a group such as this is critical for onboarding, staying the course, making sure the partner spending all the time at the table gets credit in their own organization. You have to ensure that each partner understands the importance and relevancy of its role at the table and bridging communications (and yes, egos) when debates become intense – which they tend to do.
Twenty years later, what advice would you give ARDA members and partners?
Pilar: Stay true to your purpose, but be inclusive at your discussion tables. Only then can you remain relevant to the communities that you serve.
Steve: Be patient and attentive to one another's needs. Be intentional to purpose and deliberate in action.
Mary Ellen: Once you build it, people will only come if what you collect is relevant to them and if you develop the public’s capacity to use the data. And share credit, be shameless about it. It really does take a village to understand the village. One last note: This work is, without a doubt, a labor of love . . . please, please stay the course. Please make sure we have access to the kind of data that will allow us to make the best decisions possible so that a higher quality of life is possible for everyone who lives here. We are ‘counting’ on you.
Mary Ellen Burns is Senior Vice President of Grant Implementation for the United Way of San Antonio and Bexar County. In the early years, Mary Ellen was AACIS’ only staffing.
Pilar Oates, now an independent consultant, served in a 17-year career at Methodist Healthcare Ministries, retiring as Executive Director in 2013.
Steve Blanchard is Chair of the Department of Applied Social and Cultural Sciences at Our Lady of the Lake University.