The App Pack

Two Boston city employees are using technology to revolutionize the way local governments interact with residents. And they’re doing it from—of all places—inside Mayor Menino’s City Hall.

new urban mechanics boston

Photo illustration by C.J. Burton

You’re in a real-life video game, barreling down the Riverway during morning rush hour and weaving dangerously between a driver on one side who’s applying mascara and a cabbie on the other who’s yapping on his phone while punching at a GPS unit. Right after you cross Brookline Ave., a Subaru wagon with a “COEXIST” bumper sticker cuts you off, forcing you to switch lanes and plow into a pothole the size of Fenway Park. Now you’re stuck on one of the most dangerous roads in Boston, waiting for AAA and hoping that you don’t get clipped by a passing motorist. You wouldn’t wish this fate upon Whitey Bulger.

Versions of that scenario have played out regularly since Mayor Curley ruled the Emerald Necklace. But now a new Bond-worthy technology pioneered by City Hall is doing the unthinkable: making Boston’s weathered roadways less hazardous. How? Well, let’s replay that scene on the Riverway. This time you have a city-developed app called Street Bump activated on your smartphone. When you hit the ditch, your phone senses the clunk and swiftly alerts the Public Works Department. Using the GPS tag from your incident report, plus data from the device’s accelerometer, repair crews magically assess the issue and, if necessary, dispatch workers to fill the crater. By the time tomorrow’s commute rolls around, there’s no more pothole. Street Bump is also being used to detect manhole covers and sewer grates in need of leveling, and to map railway crossings that may frazzle drivers.

The brains behind this app work out of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, which takes its name from a play on Mayor Menino’s “Urban Mechanic” moniker. Since 2010, the office, known as the MONUM, has collaborated with private and institutional partners like IDEO, Connected Bits, and the Waltham-based firm InnoCentive—all of which helped design Street Bump. In that time, the office has also produced heralded technologies such as Citizens Connect, an app that allows residents and city workers to report everything from rats to broken street lights, and Discover BPS, a Web-based app that helps parents easily navigate the school-assignment labyrinth. The MONUM is also developing an online portal that would enable parents to share education data with BPS teachers and their kids’ afterschool programs.

When City Councilor John Connolly announced in March that he would run for mayor, he blasted Menino for his supposed Luddite ways, joking that the current administration’s idea of online permitting is letting people print forms off the Internet and hand-deliver them to City Hall. But for all the flack Menino catches for being behind the times when it comes to technology, when he leaves office, one of his lasting legacies will be turning his kingdom into a model of high-tech citizenry.

Much of that transformation has been done out of the MONUM, which is headed by the nationally respected urban innovators Chris Osgood and Nigel Jacob, who, between them, are fundamentally restructuring constituent services. And not just in Boston. Citizens Connect, for instance, has been downloaded many thousands of times, and has been adapted in dozens of other states and in other countries. Last year, Philadelphia opened its own Office of New Urban Mechanics in the image of Boston’s. Osgood, Jacob, and their team have been repeatedly honored for their work—the White House has lauded them as “Champions of Change,” and Jacob and Osgood were named public officials of the year by Governing magazine.

Which is not to say that their work is completed here. It’s not easy to upgrade services in one of America’s oldest metro areas. The city has lots of old records, old infrastructure, and old systems that are difficult to drag into the 21st century. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the MONUM’s advancements are occurring right here, under a mayor who didn’t get voice mail installed until this year. Nikhil Sahni, a recent fellow at the Forum for Growth & Innovation at Harvard Business School who’s now the policy director for cost trends and special projects at the state’s Health Policy Commission, classifies the city as a tech trailblazer to be reckoned with. “What’s happening in Boston,” he says, “is something that I haven’t seen anywhere else.”

The exciting news for urban dwellers is that Jacob and Osgood say they’re only in the beta stage. “We’re still in exploration mode,” Jacob says. “We really want to reinvent how people perceive government services.”

 

Jacob and Osgood took divergent paths to Boston City Hall. Osgood started right down the street from where he now works—the 36-year-old grew up on Beacon Hill and in Brookline and enlisted in City Year in 1994. He then attended Haverford College, in part because of a program called the Growth and Structure of Cities. After graduating in 1999, he spent five years in New York City’s parks and recreation department, eventually serving as chief of staff, before returning to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Business School, from which he graduated in 2006. By the time he wound up at City Hall in his final year at Harvard—as a fellow in the mayor’s office tasked with reimagining engagement—Osgood had come to believe that working with private and community partners from outside of government could yield great benefits for the city.

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