Turning Data into Equity: Lessons from San Diego


As they deal with record amounts of infrastructure dollars, America’s cities also have an opportunity and responsibility to turn rhetoric concerning equity into results. Better and fairer capital investments will require changes in previous routines and will not always come easily.  Yet in San Diego, a well-designed and clearly authorized equity office that connects performance to well-visualized data show the way.

Kim Desmond, the Chief of Race and Equity and Kirby Brady, Chief Innovation Officer for Mayor Todd Gloria in San Diego provide three principles and a guide for other cities looking to convert their data and equity work into infrastructure results.  The first principle deals with structure—the location of the department, its direct line of authority to a committed elected executive and its relationship to the agency responsible for performance management. The second deals with visualization – the importance of locational intelligence and mapping as both a way to understand data and to communicate its meaning. The third and final principle is in checking biases – how to identify them both within operations and within the data.

Both officials have a concentration on action, uniting “data and innovation with race and equity in order to really actualize how we’re moving towards a goal.” This joint effort starts by using data to change the conversation about defining equity in governance, normalizing this discussion in order to produce a government wide conversation around the definition of equity and systemic racism in a manner that assists in evaluating and improving city policies. The conversations both start from and have underlying support from the very top of San Diego government: Brady and Desmond both report directly to Mayor Todd Gloria.

Mayor Gloria established the Department of Race and Equity in 2020 and closely aligned it with the Chief Innovation Officer to facilitate access to the data needed to advance equity in operations, policy, and planning. Yet to be successful, a city needs to look not to plans or talk but to outcomes; in this regard the partnership between Brady and Desmond’s departments is crucial.


This brings us to the first principle; Brady and Desmond have a working structure that allows them to easily and creatively collaborate. Brady has a performance analytics team that helps manage the city’s data assets from which the team then analyzes the city’s performance. Mayor Gloria placed the analytics function in the mayor’s office, because, according to Brady “he wanted to know on an ongoing basis where improvement is needed for residents.”

One key area for improvement in San Diego, as in every city, is equity, which means that Desmond and Brady can combine their work to accelerate building the tools necessary to communicate and analyze equity. For example, the data science team helps other agencies understand whether the city’s assets are used in an equitable fashion.

The two officials stress that they are not collecting data just to collect data, but rather to drive insights and to change the way people are making decisions in real time. Desmond and Brady are united in their aim to start “these conversations with service-providing departments at the city, trying to get them to think about how they’re making equitable investments in communities, what those communities are, and where you're making those investments.”

Structure alone will not produce results of course. Actions require that officials as well as residents throughout the city understand the impact of previous inequitable decisions, and that understanding results only from a narrative painted geographically and visually. 


The second principle deals with the importance of location and mapping as both a data and a communication tool. Most functions in a city relate to a location—residents live in a place and experience many government services, or lack thereof, in their neighborhoods.

Threaded through Desmond and Brady’s work is GIS as a communication tool, not just an analytic device; they use geo-spatial visuals to increase engagement with internal and external stakeholders. Internally, Desmond uses GIS to answer questions such as: “How are you making investments in communities, and what are the demographics are of those communities?” Externally, these maps can demonstrate why the city is investing in certain areas and what progress they have made in achieving stated goals.

GIS tools help create narratives that increase an understanding of equity with all stakeholders. Desmond explained that her team is “dealing with generational, complex issues,” like historic neighborhood design, inequitable parks and green spaces, and inaccessible rec centers. And now she can lead the charge to de-bias the way the city “makes decisions with tax-payer dollars, for instance ensuring that all our 235 parks are equitable in their care and services.”

Desmond emphasizes that she is looking at access relative to opportunity and, in doing so, discusses socioeconomic outcomes—"What jobs are around you, mobility wise? What can you get to within a reasonable time? What amenities do you have in your neighborhood?” By reviewing conditions on the ground, like education spaces, digital access, and flood and fire risks in a GIS format, Brady and Desmond have a jumping off point for discussions with the community and with other city departments. These GIS visualizations and story maps “allows us to communicate in a very visual and very intuitive way,” said Desmond “We are telling stories around needs throughout the community.”

The two departments are applying similar approaches and tools for the purposes of infrastructure investments, including for bike lanes and road design. Making decisions about new physical investments is complex and requires not just a picture of today’s conditions but also a map of previous (dis)investments and the ability to predict the impact of new investments, including the effect on gentrification. Kirby pointed out that “If we invest a substantial amount of money into an area, then what does that do in regard to the market valuation in that space? You must think about this type of map to say, what are you trying to solve—a better physical place or are you trying to solve for low wages for African American males? And then geographically, are they migrating somewhere else because the market forces are now more costly?”

Data mapping allows everyone to have those difficult kinds of conversations in a way that involves both the engineers charged with looking at investments in space, with workforce experts charged with solving issues that have structurally excluded Black, Indigenous, and other people of color from high wage jobs, and the community where the investments will be.


Brady and Desmond are also keenly aware of their third principle – the issue of bias in data. Nationally this issue presents itself in the overreliance on 311 reports as the entry point for service and a central source of performance data. The front end of San Diego’s customer service response involves both a 311 number and an app called Get It Done where residents can make service requests from potholes to graffiti. To the performance and equity teams it presents an opportunity for them to analyze response times by neighborhood, but they do so with caution.

Mapping response times among and within diverse neighborhoods does not provide a complete picture. Desmond cautioned, “Who are we not hearing from? An absence of reports does not mean that conditions do not exist that need fixing – just that they are not being reported.” Desmond troubleshoots the gaps by mapping reports with GIS tools and creating an index, then drilling in and asking, “What is going on in this community?” She then pairs the 311-reporting information with the voices of stakeholders—"conversations that produce a level of authenticity and granularity that we haven't been able to do without these tools in the past.” 

Another local example is the San Diego police, who use resident feedback to determine and respond to neighborhood issues more actively. The feedback, captured through surveys, asks if residents believe the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) is effective, how much they trust the police department and if they feel safe in their neighborhoods. This data-driven process helps officials benchmark and respond to the community pre-emptively and not just based on complaints about crime or a police action since, as with the 311 reports, not all of the neighborhoods are calling or reporting issues similarly.

Desmond began her career in early child education, which gave her a front-row seat to the way that government systems interact with people – and the way that people’s interactions are different based on who and where they are. “That really is what led me to government, as a place to address how systems impact people and how local government can play a role in the way that we build equitable outcomes,” said Desmond.

Brady and Desmond are charting a new, collaborative course and showing what government can do with a strong, data-driven equity mission. Their three guiding principles are setting the bar for excellence in local government and are a leading model for cities across the country.

About the Author

Stephen Goldsmith 

Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy and the Director of the Innovations in American Government Program at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His latest book is Growing Fairly: How to Build Opportunity and Equity in Workforce Development.

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