Building an SDG Data Dashboard for San José, California

A team of students, lecturers, and researchers in San José collaborated with community leaders to design an interactive and replicable tool for SDG implementation in cities.

By Derek Ouyang, Lecturer, Sustainable Urban Systems Initiative, Stanford University and Sandra Ruckstuhl, Program Manager, SDSN


San José, California was selected as a model city for the new USA Sustainable Cities Initiative (USA-SCI) in 2015. This project, led by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), brings together academic institutions and key urban stakeholders to localize the UN’s newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals — a series of global aspirations and priorities designed to take on major sustainable development challenges. San José State University (SJSU) served as the initial academic partner to facilitate a process that evaluated the City of San José’s strategies and goals and their alignment with the SDGs. In addition, recommendations for how the city could implement the SDGs at the local level were developed by faculty. The final report from this work, San José: Implementing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals at the Local Level, was published in December 2016.

In 2016, Stanford University’s Sustainable Urban Systems (SUS) initiative joined as San José’s second academic partner in the USA-SCI, with a focus on building an SDG Data Dashboard for San José which can ultimately be replicated for other cities. A team of students, lecturers, and researchers in SUS has collaborated with staff and community leaders in San José on the design and implementation of this interactive information tool.

SDG Data Dashboard

While localization of the SDGs involves many strategies and policies at the municipal scale, like San José’s Environmental Sustainability Plan and Smart City Vision, it also involves the direct engagement of neighborhood communities. This is best exemplified in urban mobility, where no matter the availability and quality of public road, bike, pedestrian, and transit infrastructure in a community, individual households can still make drastically different choices in their mode of commute based on personal lifestyle factors and cultural values. A holistic sustainable mobility plan requires both (1) top-down investment in strategies like transit-oriented development and (2) bottom-up campaigns to raise awareness of the environmental and human health impacts of car-centric urbanism and ensure safe and equitable mobility for all.

Empowering individuals to understand and shape their personal impact on the SDGs is an interdisciplinary challenge that engages local stakeholders, data scientists, engineers, and human-centered designers. To help address this challenge, a SUS team has been prototyping a public dashboard tool that (1) raises awareness, (2) inspires change, and (3) motivates action locally on the SDGs, with a focus so far on Goal 13: Climate Action.

  1. To raise awareness, the dashboard provides residents in the 524 census block groups of San José with neighborhood-specific estimates of per capita carbon emissions categorized by energy, mobility, water, food, and goods footprints.
  2. To inspire change, the tool then produces comparisons of user-generated inputs with neighborhood and city averages and the option to share results on social networks.
  3. Finally, to motivate action, the tool generates personally tailored and incentive-based improvement plans, as well as links to other municipal resources.

While open data in San José and other US cities is not granular or reliable enough for such dashboards to accurately represent reality, the Stanford SUS team has developed an interim solution utilizing a series of geospatial and census-based datasets. These data objectively record variation in specific consumer expenditure habits across block groups, as a proxy for variations in carbon footprint. The dashboard promotes awareness about the objective relationships between material consumption and greenhouse gases, provides salience and incentives for citizens to meet their own sustainable goals, and equips cities with the data and social infrastructure to practice and prioritize evidence-based and citizen-accountable governance.

In April 2017, the SUS team presented their preliminary work to staff of San José’s District 3 and members of the District 3 Community Leadership Council. When asked what additional information they would be interested to see in a dashboard, residents recommended metrics including housing affordability, homelessness, walkability, public transit ridership, health, and education – all of which are embedded in the full spectrum of 17 SDGs. Residents also stressed the importance of delineating neighborhood boundaries (which have more social meaning than U.S. census block groups) on the dashboard, aligning this type of information with existing city initiatives like Vision Zero, and keeping the tool as simple and inclusive as possible. For example, it will have to be accessible to San José’s large Spanish-, Chinese-, and Vietnamese-speaking populations to be more inclusive.

The Stanford SUS team will continue to iterate on the dashboard design with community stakeholders, focusing first on District 3, academic partners like SJSU, and tech sector partners like ESRI which provides an open data platform for such community-oriented tools. The team will also explore the development of complementary tools for citizen-led and city-led initiatives, such as the Cool Block Program and Cool City Challenge being piloted in California. The ultimate goal is for the dashboard to expand vertically to incorporate indicators for all 17 SDGs, and horizontally to encompass the entire Bay Area and beyond.

You can view a demo of SUS’s San Jose SDG dashboard here.

The San Jose SDG Data Dashboard is among the first activities under SDSN’s new SDG Data for Cities Solutions Initiative – a crossover project between USA-SCI and the Data for Sustainable Development expert Thematic Network. The SDG Data for Cities SI seeks to promote the innovative processes of urban data systems designed to bridge the local and global sustainability agendas and to center the learnings for subnational SDG monitoring systems.

This post was originally published by the Sustainable Development Solutions Network.