Data-Smart City Pod: Leveraging Data and GIS to Correct for Historical, Systemic Racism

Episode Summary

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Christen Watts, GIS Manager at the city of Asheville and Scott Barnwell, the city's Business and Public Technology Manager

Episode Notes

In this episode, Professor Steve Goldsmith interviews Christen Watts, GIS Manager at the city of Asheville, and Scott Barnwell, the city's Business and Public Technology Manager. They discuss how Asheville is using data and GIS to further racial equity in the city and correct for historical, systemic racism. They also talk about equitable asset management, how equity is everyone's responsibility, and the importance of history in story mapping. Listen below, or wherever you get your podcasts, to hear Professor Goldsmith, Christen Watts, and Scott Barnwell discuss these topics and learn how to implement similar equity, community, and allyship work in your own city. 

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

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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 top innovators and experts to discuss the future of cities and how to become data smart.

This is Steve Goldsmith, professor of urban policy at Harvard's Kennedy School with another podcast on public policy, particularly public policy driven by the use of geographic information systems as spatial analytics. Today I'm with Scott Barnwell, who's the manager of business and public technologies for the city of Asheville, and Christen Watts, who's in charge of GIS. Welcome, and thanks for joining me.

Scott Barnwell: Great to be here.

Steve Goldsmith: Scott, let's just quickly do a little background. Where were you before you came to the city? And tell me about your agency and then we'll move over to Christen.

Scott Barnwell: So, I'm also a GIS professional by background and was working for a GIS consulting firm for quite a few years, working mostly for government agencies before coming to Asheville. And my intent coming here was to settle into one place where I could focus on problem solving and not bounce around to different agencies.

Steve Goldsmith: And then in your current agency, is Christen part of your agency or she's in a different agency?

Scott Barnwell: No, Christen is our GIS manager. We both work within the IT services department for the city. So it's a centralized GIS program with some decentralized staff throughout the organization as well.

Steve Goldsmith: Okay. So Christen, a little bit about your background and tell us why you're better at GIS than Scott is or how you want to introduce yourself.

Christen Watts: Well, my background is... I've actually been working for the city, for me, a long time, coming up on 16 years. But 10 of those years were in our parks and recreation department running our outdoor programs, which I dearly miss, but I really do love working in GIS. And actually, Scott is a wonderful mentor and really has given us a lot of freedom to pursue this kind of equity and inclusion work using GIS.

Steve Goldsmith: Good. Thanks. Well, so let's start generally on the subject of the role of GIS in Asheville racial equity initiative. You're a lead city in paying attention to those issues, and GIS is a leading component of that. So I don't know who to start with first. Christen, let me start with you and then go back to Scott. So just generally, it's interesting I think, how GIS particularly as connected to story maps can create a narrative which will help create both support and insight. So talk to us a little bit about the role of GIS in the broader racial equity initiative in Asheville, please.

Christen Watts: Sure. Well, I think that GIS plays a really large role because location plays a large role, where people lived has a lot to do with how they were able to thrive in our society. And I know that because of systemic racism and local government and federal government. People couldn't live certain places in Asheville, there were covenants and because of redlining. And because of this historical location-based racism, we've had to learn this history and share this history. And I think GIS is a really great way and the tools that we have to make change, first making awareness and then using GIS to develop better policies and make better decisions.

Steve Goldsmith: Scott, how do you think about making the GIS tools more broadly, maybe available is the right word, but utilized by other agencies, right? So it's one thing that Christen and you are really smart with these tools, but they add power when other people can layer data and see things that affect their departments. How are you trying to cause that to occur? The goal is to improve racial equity and there are biases everywhere, obviously in every city. So how do you think about GIS is opening up folks' eyes across a larger horizon?

Scott Barnwell: Well, I think the work that Christen's led with the story maps and particularly the mapping racial equity story map, that was the first big one, was just instrumental in providing background and providing knowledge that any of us, including myself, a white person, was ignorant of quite frankly. And the ignorance was just so... And was and is incredibly profound. I'm looking at my window of my office right now at Charlotte Street in Asheville, North Carolina, it used to be Valley Street. I looked at this street for years, never realizing until that story map came out and learning the history that Valley Street was a center of a vibrant African-American community that was stripped away. And it's now a five-lane highway essentially riding through town. It wasn't that long ago that that happened.

And if it wasn't for that story map, maybe I would have learned about this some other way, but that made it so visual and so approachable that it was easy to learn and easy to understand. And that tool has become something that has been used by folks throughout the community, other agencies, other groups, but also just the general public and then others across the country who looked at that and said, "Wow, we could do something similar and map our racial equity history and understand it."

Steve Goldsmith: So it's one important thing to use maps to open up folks' eyes to prior discrimination or important legacy issues. It's another to try to use it to fashion remedies to those problems. And I was noticing your capital improvements plan appears to be utilizing GIS to help make decisions that compensate for some of those past practices. Could either one of you start explaining those to our listeners, please?

Christen Watts: Sure. I will say that we're starting to use equity as part of our analysis for prioritizing projects, as well as looking at where is our capital spending going. And using GIS to figure out who is living where, we're doing these projects, whether it be a sidewalk or a caving, where money is going and who is benefiting and using an equity lens when making those decisions. So this is a new process, but I think that we have a lot of power behind it.

Steve Goldsmith: And Scott, how does the community participate if you are developing a capital plan and you want to look at previous decisions and priorities, how are you using those maps, story maps and tools, to involve the community?

Scott Barnwell: So big part of it is community engagement and the primary tool that we focus on is the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, GARE, their racial equity toolkit, which is it's a series of questions, which is largely focused around community engagement. So like our capital project staff will go to a neighborhood meeting for example, and will bring the GIS tools with them to show the history of what's taken place in their neighborhood. How redlining, if it has had an impact, what that impact has been, and also look at where we've made investments over time. So we've got those capital projects mapped out. We can see where the infrastructure is and we can see where infrastructure is lacking. And we can ask the questions that come from the racial equity toolkit. Like who's going to get impacted by this? Who's going to get impacted negatively? Who's going to get impacted positively? What if we did nothing? Just basic questions and let the community weigh in. But the GIS is a key component to informing that conversation and informing that engagement.

Steve Goldsmith: And then does the capital planning team draft ideas that the community can react to? I mean, you could map obviously where dollars are going to be invested and you also can map where there has been disinvestment perhaps based on racial purposes. So how do you think about maps, equity and capital spending as it relates to the problems of the past?

Christen Watts: Well, I think with asset management, we can look at how our assets such as streets and sidewalks, their condition, and do an assessment and using equity data. But then I think something really powerful is how we move forward and prioritize. And this summer we worked on an analysis where we used BIPOC population, Black and Indigenous People of Color. And we used the percentage of BIPOC people living in neighborhoods to prioritize those projects. We wanted to make sure that that was part of the criteria for raising the level of prioritization.

Steve Goldsmith: One additional area closely connected to capital planning but different, is that of course over the years, including in your city, redlining's had a very, very severe effect on communities of color. How are you addressing with mapping and part of your racial and equity initiative, the mitigation of some of the problems driven by redlining?

Scott Barnwell: Well, I think a big part of it is just bringing that into the conversation in the first place, right? So it wasn't until the last few years that the redlined areas of Asheville were common knowledge. I don't even know if it's still common knowledge, but it's becoming more common knowledge because every single capital project, every single significant project the city undertakes, we overlay redlining. And we look at, does this project impact an area that's been historically marginalized or historically... What's the word I'm looking for? Not invested in, disinvested.

Steve Goldsmith: Disinvested, right.

Scott Barnwell: Yeah. So I think just even having that data, it's really basic, but it's super important in terms of informing those conversations.

Steve Goldsmith: If you were to take your experiences on GIS and your important work now on equity, what are the two or three organizational things you'd recommend to other cities, right? How would you think they should first tell the story? What are the areas they should pay attention to where GIS can open up much more insight into equity?

Christen Watts: Well, I think making data available for the decision makers has been really helpful for us right off the bat, we just tried to get as much demographic information and what parts of town are there less English speakers? Where things are happening, getting that information available and easily accessible was a really good way to start helping people who are making decisions.

Scott Barnwell: Another area that was helpful is if a community or a city or a county or whatever has a team. We are really fortunate to have a powerhouse of an office of equity and inclusion. And they would come to us with ideas. They would actually help drive a lot of the work that we were doing. And they also provided really critical education and a degree of making us comfortable with being uncomfortable. So we don't have a trouble anymore talking about things like white supremacy. I mean, Christen and I are both white. We don't have any problem, whereas maybe a few years ago that would have felt really uncomfortable. And now it's just part of our conversations. So I think if you've got those folks in your community or in your city, take advantage of their expertise and just approach the whole thing with a deep sense of humility, because we have so much to learn, especially as white folks, I would just add that. So yeah, tap into those resources.

Christen Watts: Yeah, I'll add. Scott is my supervisor and from the start of having equity and inclusion office, he's been telling us all like, equity it's not just that office's work. It's all of our work to do this.

Steve Goldsmith: That's a great conclusion. And then I assume when your city leadership goes out to do community meetings, their visuals include the maps that shows some of the things we've talked about, right? So that there's a constant use of visual images of the data of Asheville.

Scott Barnwell: Absolutely, yes.

Steve Goldsmith: Let me just close here. We are quite interested in advance work that Asheville has done dealing with its own racial history, but also looking forward, the fact that you use facial analytics and GIS tools to help paint a picture for engagement, to address or redress the problems of the past should be an example to many of our listeners in the cities who pay attention. And we have an article up on our site. Thank you so much to Christen Watts and Scott Barnwell for joining us today. Thank you very much.

Scott Barnwell: Thank you.

Steve Goldsmith: If you liked this podcast, please visit us at or follow us @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.