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Albuquerque, N.M., Charts Path to Equity Through Data, Tech

As an increasing number of cities nationwide work to foster equitable outcomes for residents, Albuquerque has created a new case study for how data can be used in various ways to lift populations up.

As major cities across the country work to foster more equitable outcomes for residents, one City Hall has found an invaluable asset for the work — extensive use of data.

Armed with a relatively new Office of Equity and Inclusion (OEI), Albuquerque, N.M., has found data to be increasingly actionable as it strives toward a number of equity-related goals, including some as commonplace as identifying and fixing potholes in underserved communities. Brian Osterloh, who is the director of Albuquerque’s Department of Technology and Innovation, detailed how the city is supporting inclusion by comparing its pavement ratings against reports of potholes and then visually examining the city for unreported road flaws. 

“It tells us there are portions of our communities that aren’t reporting,” Osterloh said. “So now we can try to find some answers. Can technology assist us with that if we have multilingual chatbots, for example, or translation services? Can that help us to get those members of our community to feel more comfortable reporting issues to us and more comfortable with the idea that they will be followed up and corrected?”

Osterloh said as tech-heavy initiatives such as smart cities become standard, city leadership must also consider the possibility of bias within data-based decisions. He also warns against technology for technology’s own sake. For example, having a translator on a city website is great, but that should not be the end goal, especially if it does not create a pathway for non-English speakers to directly transact with the city.

OEI data analyst Andrea Calderon said considerations about equity became more of an issue for many cities around 2015. That was the year when, for instance, a series of intense protests occurred in Baltimore about the issue of police brutality against black citizens. Calderon was working for Baltimore at the time. 

“The uprising really put the fire under us to move that [equity planning] forward in a much quicker way,” Calderon said. 

In Albuquerque now, Calderon has seen equity work being done with a stronger emphasis on data. The city uses IBM Cognos Analytics, which allows Albuquerque Human Resources to feed city workforce data into the IBM system. Calderon is now looking at demographic information on workers in every city department, seeing if there is a discrepancy between those numbers and the demographics of Albuquerque’s community, before meeting with each internal organization about hiring practices. 

Calderon is also helping departments with developing their own equity analyses and action plans. This process requires direct appeals to agency leaders, as creating an equity lens is not yet a legal requirement for the departments. Calderon said OEI Director Michelle Melendez is pushing for an ordinance that would mandate equity coordinators for city agencies.  

The intersection between data and equity in Albuquerque also drives larger projects that have real-world implications for residents in historically underserved areas. Both data mapping and community feedback led to a $7 million investment in infrastructure improvements in the Trumbull Village and Kirtland Community Association neighborhood, which had often been associated with low-quality housing and crime. 

Melendez said Albuquerque is also mapping data on young people who come to city job fairs for early work experience. The goal is to ensure kids from all over the city have labor opportunities by holding fairs in strategic locations. 

“We didn’t ask before [of job fair attendees], where do you come from?” Melendez said. “Or maybe we did, but we didn’t use the data. Now we map, and we can tell you the majority of the kids who come are kids of color and what parts of the city they’re coming from to get those jobs. It’s telling us that we are hitting the right populations. We are recruiting from the neighborhoods that have the most need for those early work experiences.”

Haley Kadish, performance and innovation officer for the city, is at the center of Albuquerque’s effort to drive city dollars toward local businesses, including those owned by women and minorities. Kadish said the beginning of this project was not straightforward.

“What’s funny is that sounds like a really simple, normal initiative, and like I would just go start figuring out contracts to switch to local, and that’s what we thought the initiative would be,” Kadish said. “But come to find out that we knew very little about the vendors that we were doing business with and vendors that exist out in the community, so we couldn’t even tell really what we were spending with local vendors, because we just didn’t have any data about that.” 

Kadish was able to collect vendor data and begin analyzing it. Primarily, she retrieved this information through W-9 forms. But knowledge on Albuquerque’s minority-owned businesses remains limited, despite the city expanding the fields on its W-9s to capture such data. Many minority-owned businesses in the city are reluctant to identify themselves as such. Kadish said the lesson here is that an ordinance with an incentive might be necessary to convince businesses to share this type of information.  

Melendez, Calderon and Kadish spoke highly of Albuquerque’s connection to the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a network of governments focused on improving outcomes for all Americans. GARE helps cities exchange ideas and find ways to achieve equity in different respects. Through its interactions with GARE, Albuquerque has learned, among other things, that the city is at the forefront of utilizing data for equity initiatives. 

The team attributes this success to various factors. Mayor Tim Keller’s administration and leadership is one reason. Both Kadish and Osterloh cited the very make-up of the Albuquerque community too. Not only does the Albuquerque metro area make up roughly half of New Mexico’s total population, but it’s a majority-minority community that demands forward thinking and points toward the future of the United States. 

“There are portions of our community that are hidden beneath some surface,” Osterloh said. “We want to bring them above the surface, and we want them to know that we are here for them, just like we are here for those who are already above the surface. Technology will help us do that.”

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.