Data-Smart City Pod: Improving Life in Southern California with GIS and Data

Episode Summary

In the first episode of Data-Smart City Pod, Professor Steve Goldsmith talks with Rex Richardson and Darin Chidsey, respectively the president and chief operating officer of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). They discuss SCAG’s regional data platform, one of the most interesting models in the country of using multi-jurisdictional GIS and data to improve quality of life for Southern Californians.

Episode Notes

In the first episode of Data-Smart City Pod, Professor Steve Goldsmith talks with Rex Richardson and Darin Chidsey, respectively the president and chief operating officer of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG). They discuss SCAG’s regional data platform, one of the most interesting models in the country of using multi-jurisdictional GIS and data to improve quality of life for Southern Californians.

About Data-Smart City Pod

New from the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Data-Smart City Pod brings on top innovators and leading industry, academic, and government officials to discuss data, innovation, and government. This podcast serves as a central resource for cities and individuals interested in the intersection of government and innovations, the adoption of data projects on the local government level, and how to become data smart. Hosted by Stephen Goldsmith, former Deputy Mayor of New York,  Mayor of Indianapolis, and current Professor at Harvard Kennedy School.

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Music credit: Summer-Man by Ketsa

About Data-Smart City Solutions

Data-Smart City Solutions, housed at the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School, is working to catalyze the adoption of data projects on the local government level by serving as a central resource for cities interested in this emerging field. We highlight best practices, top innovators, and promising case studies while also connecting leading industry, academic, and government officials. Our research focus is the intersection of government and data, ranging from open data and predictive analytics to civic engagement technology. We seek to promote the combination of integrated, cross-agency data with community data to better discover and preemptively address civic problems. To learn more visit us online and follow us on Twitter

About the Ash Center 

The Ash Center is a research center and think tank at Harvard Kennedy School focused on democracy, government innovation, and Asia public policy. AshCast, the Center's podcast series, is a collection of conversations, including events and Q&As with experts, from around the Center on pressing issues, forward-looking solutions, and more. 

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Episode Transcription


Steve Goldsmith: Hello, this is Steve Goldsmith, professor of Urban Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School. And you're listening to Data-Smart City Pod, where we bring on the top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

Steve Goldsmith:This is Steve Goldsmith. I'm here today with Rex Richardson, the president of the Southern California Association of Governments, and with Darin Chidsey, who is also the chief operating officer of what's known as SCAG. I'm going to talk to them about maybe the most interesting model in the country about multi-jurisdictional use of common GIS and data to improve the quality of life among members.

Steve Goldsmith: Rex, if I can call you Rex, let's start with you. First, a word or two about your background. I know you're a Long Beach city council member, you've been on the public housing committee and you've advocated for the equity office, just a second or two, about how you got into local politics and what your job is now, and then we'll come back to the issue at hand.

Rex Richardson: Sure thing, I stumbled into politics out of student government. I was student body president, local university, Cal State. As a college student, we stood up for issues like student parking, student fees and programming. I didn't understand that the concept that we were fighting for then was very similar to the work that I did in the labor movement, representing workers or the work that I do in local government, representing people; it’s equity. That was the common thread. And so over time I developed an expertise in standing up for inclusive economic policies, economic inclusion, and investment into equity to transform the narrative within communities. Within Long Beach, I have championed the establishment of the Long Beach Office of Equity, where we have placed it within the city manager's office and have driven a number of initiatives, most recently, the Racial Equity Reconciliation to really create a meaningful difference and close the narrative of a tale of two cities, as it relates to racial inequity within our city.

And we also chair our economic development committee where we placed a real focus on economic inclusion or robust, inclusive recovery. As president of SCAG, I helped become a convener and really help set the vision and leadership for the largest NPO in America, particularly at a time when we need to redefine resiliency and place a real focus on economic recovery for Southern California.

Steve Goldsmith: Darin you're the chief operating officer of what Rex has described as the largest NPO and I think probably nation's best recognized local government collaborative in the country as well. So how'd you get into that job and what's your role with SCAG?

Darin Chidsey: Well, I started my career working in politics, spent some time in Washington, DC and came back to my native Southern California and almost stumbled into the world of NPO governance. I had known them a little bit from my time in DC, but certainly within a couple years of joining the organization, you realize that somebody who really loves Southern California, understands the diversity that we have here, and the opportunities we have for success, that there's just no other organization that can bring together the groups of business leaders, of public local elected officials to really solve problems the way that we've done. And so I've been here for 15 years, had a variety of roles, but my job right now as chief operating officer is to help our staff move forward all the great ideas and exciting work that they have to fund interesting opportunity and every day is a different day. And I get to work with a lot of really amazing elected officials from throughout Southern California.

Steve Goldsmith: One of which is Rex Richardson, I bet?

Darin Chidsey: Absolutely.

Steve Goldsmith: Mr. Richardson back to you. So the subject at hand is the regional data platform, which is very unusual in its scope, right? That the NPO and SCAG would bring that to its members. So tell us a little bit about what is the regional data platform, how does mapping support it, and what are your goals?

Rex Richardson: Sure. So one of SCAG'S functions, isn't just to be a convener and a metropolitan planning organization, but we've approached - and we're very proud to have approached - our role as SCAG as a policy center, a regional policy center, where we can be a resource to help cities, sub-regional cogs and our entire region plan for a long-term sustainable future. And so the regional data platform initiative, it's a revolutionary system for collaborative data sharing and regional governance. And the idea brought out the recognition that the wellbeing of the region is ultimately tied to the ability of local jurisdictions to plan for their own futures and share those plans in the form of land use and other data with SCAG in the hopes that speaking with one language and having a symbiotic relationship between regional planning and local planning. Individual cities and counties can do more meaningful planning with their communities if they have access to data from neighboring communities, as well as the entire region. So they can plan within the context of a larger, more interconnected system.

Steve Goldsmith: Rex, let me just stay with you for a second. I know, given your commitment to equity that bringing people together through the actions, not just in Long Beach, of SCAG is important. So how are you thinking about the regional data platform as a visualization platform that helps people in the region see trends and equity issues and the like? What's the role of visualization as it relates to the regional data platform?

Rex Richardson: Sure. So one big element is transparency, allowing for community-based organizations, members of individual communities and cities, regional, sub-regional cogs to be able to see in a very transparent format, the representations of data and the realities of our region. It also allows - and thank you for raising the issue of equity - it also allows us to have a conversation based on very explicit outcomes. I believe that patterns of disparity don't occur by accident, they're the results of systems. And in order to change those systems, we have to do it in a very meaningful, intentional way based on data outcomes. And if we see that inequities continue to persist and that equitable positive outcomes are elusive a major reason why is the failure to account for data as it relates to race and demographics. And so the creation of regional data platform is in fact, a meaningful tool to address issues of equity and disparities within our region. So it is not as the end result, but as a means to achieve that end result.

Steve Goldsmith: That was terrific. Darin let's move from the visionary to the implementation if I could. And I've written a lot over the years about LA's Geo Hub allowing its agencies to speak to each other. Talk to us a little bit about how you're thinking about the GIS platform as allowing the collaboration of your members with each other.

Darin Chidsey: Now that gets really at the core of what we're trying to do with the regional data platform. As a metropolitan planning organization, certainly our initial focus was on transportation, was the physical infrastructure that was being built throughout the region. When you start to think where we are as a region and really where everybody's at right now with data and understanding how those connections are really the new infrastructure of what we need to get done in the decades ahead to make sure our work gets done opening up those lines of communication, those roadways, is really the core of it. So the regional data platform is designed to be a two-way conversation between our local jurisdictions and between the regional data that we have available that we just aggregate down and can aggregate up. Not just thought to be used for our local jurisdictions, that's where we're starting because we know we have to show a proof of concept of what this looks like, but it's also the opportunity that other researchers and great minds can comment and have one source in Southern California that they know they can get the best, most accurate data to help us research and solve the problems that we're still struggling and trying to find answers for.

Steve Goldsmith: How will you help your members use these tools? I was a mayor for eight years and a deputy mayor for a while and I teach mayors and the like, and it's always interesting to see after they go through some aha moment where they go, "Wow, look at that data, right? Look, what's happening at 10th and Main." And that triggers a whole number of thoughts. So we have two issues here. I think one is the members, the elected officials, the Rex Richardson's of your membership, but the other is the folks who work in those cities who might be able to make discoveries through the advanced tools of GIS platform. How does your organization help your members utilize those tools more completely?

Darin Chidsey: Yeah. As with anything you have to make it meaningful to the user, to the person that's on the other side of the conversation you're having. A couple of different parts of that…I'll start at the city staff level because I really do think where it all starts. If we don't have that in our local member cities that are excited and using it, it's just never going to get to where it needs to go. So we've been working for many years and most focused in the last several years about providing resources, whether it's physical equipment, although most of everything's moved to web based now. It's training, it's understanding, it's how to use these tools to do the job that you're already doing, but doing it better, more efficiently, speaking in a language that more people can understand, because I think that's where people really get excited about how you're translating that data into real visual experiences that makes it more meaningful to them. At the elected official level it is exactly at that.

When they start to see problems that they have might not be as complicated as they think it was because they're starting to see how the data is telling the story perhaps about how to solve that. And then that can be on a lot of different issue areas. But it's one that again, is giving a tool and showing proof of concept exactly how that tool will help them make better decisions. So we focused on general plan updates with a handful of select cities, because we think again, taking it from this big picture idea of a regional data platform down to something that's meaningful and something that every city has to do and needs to do - and many in our region are outdated. I think that's going to be the proof of concept that we're going to start to build some momentum at the staff, as well as the elected official level about how important a tool like this can be for our region.

Steve Goldsmith: Will you do training around our GIS tools or stories?

Darin Chidsey: Yeah, yeah, lots of training, different types of training, understanding the different sophistication levels of the users. It's going to be - Esri has been, a good partner with us in this allowing and providing the resources, not just for licenses for all our member cities, but to make sure that they have the tools to be able to get up to speed on how to use them the best.

Steve Goldsmith: So can local governments upload data to the platform? Can community groups organize the data by their GIS coordinates? Talk to us a little bit about eventual functionality through successful.

Darin Chidsey: Yeah, certainly the value of the regional data platform is that it's real, live, current data. And we know in a region as complex as ours, with 18 million residents and 200 local jurisdictions, that we don't always know what's best is happening on the ground. So the value of this system is that it is two way. It allows cities, counties to upload information so that we, when we're doing our long range planning, we know what is expected at each one of those cities and what's on the ground today. So we have a better sense of how to help them predict the future. Same time, it provides a transparency as it starts to get fully built out so that the community-based organizations can understand what that means in the areas that they're most concerned in working on. So absolutely that two way back and forth is really the foundation about what makes this a data platform for the region and not static, but something that can certainly live and breathe and become as accurate and as meaningful as we hope that it can be.

Steve Goldsmith: Okay. Mr. Richardson, let's go to your last day in office as president, not as Long Beach city counselor, but as president of SCAG. And you're delivering your speech to the members about what your regime has brought to them, looking at these tools, what would you hope would have been accomplished?

Rex Richardson: The most significant thing that we've done in terms of impact to the region is to adopt our Connect SolCal plan. This is our regional transportation plan and sustainable community strategy…but it's really a long-range vision for 2020 to 2025. It's a plan that was adopted unanimously, represents 300,000 jobs annually, around $620 billion over the next 25 years. And in order to achieve that vision, which has bold targets to address climate change or housing crisis, economics, public health, we need to make sure that we have the foundation and the groundwork in place for coordinated local planning and regional planning. And this regional data platform will be a vehicle to help achieve the goals set out within our Connect SolCal plan. But every jurisdiction has its own part to play. We have our own local plan for comprehensive plans. These are the individual puzzle pieces that fit together to complete this regional vision and bringing it into focus.

So the blueprints are laid, the vision is established, but how we get there, how we follow that blueprint all comes down to the level of collaboration, the resources that are in place, the incentives that are provided. And I believe that what SCAG's role this year was really laying the groundwork going into next year. We're going to see a lot of conversation around stimulus and investment to housing, transportation, broadband. It's good to know that we have a data platform in place and the regional plan in place to help guide the economic recovery that Southern California needs. But that's the story of 2020 and 2021. And whether we've done it right, really will be determined by the people, whether we've made a meaningful difference in the lives of people in Southern California.

Steve Goldsmith: Thank you very much. This is Steve Goldsmith talking to Rex Richardson, Long Beach city council member and president of the Southern California Association of Government and Darin Chelsea, who is the chief operating officer of SCAG about their national precedent setting effort to use Esri platforms in GIS, collaboration, and communication to build a higher quality life in Southern California. Thank you very much, gentlemen, for your time.

Darin Chidsey: Thank you.

Rex Richardson: Thank you, Steve.

Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at or follow us at @DataSmartCities on Twitter. Find us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. This podcast was produced by Betsy Gardner and hosted by me, Steve Goldsmith. We’re proud to serve as a central resource for cities interested in the intersection of government, data, and innovation. Thanks for listening.