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.

By | Boston Magazine |

Jacob, for his part, grew up in Canada and attended the University of Western Ontario. He began his career as a software engineer at IBM and eventually moved into engineering roles at smaller tech companies. Jacob, who is 38, landed at City Hall as a fellow in 2006, the same year as Osgood, and took graduate courses in computer science at Tufts. These days he serves as Menino’s adviser on emerging technologies, and is also a fellow at Bennington College’s Center for the Advancement of Public Action and a board member of Code for America, a national nonprofit from which the MONUM recruits promising young talent.

Jacob and Osgood, rarely seen at City Hall without each other, are known as the tag team of “Chris and Nigel.” Before they moved into the same office, though, seeds of what would eventually become the MONUM began to sprout in different corners of City Hall.

Soon after beginning his work in Boston government, Osgood was tasked with perfecting one of Menino’s prized initiatives: a constituent call-in system known as the Mayor’s Hotline. Up to that point, residents would dial in with complaints, leave messages, and cross their fingers. Osgood’s job was to update the hotline for the digital age. He created a team of data geeks and coders—including Jacob—to launch Citizens Connect as a website in 2008. A year later, despite lacking funding for the project, the group introduced a complementary mobile app that made the reporting process even simpler. Now, users can simply point their phone at a public hazard or eyesore and snap a picture. The image—along with corresponding GPS coordinates—is then routed to the appropriate department in City Hall. The MONUM was officially born soon after, in 2010, with Osgood and Jacob appointed as cochairs. The office continued to improve Citizens Connect, and today users can report problems by phone, text, or tweet.

These developments are a big change from years past, when calls to City Hall bounced among operators until complaints wound up scribbled on a pad somewhere and seemingly went ignored. This new approach is often called participatory urbanism, and it’s unfolding in every realm of Boston city services, from transportation to trash collection.

“There are a lot of civic innovators out there,” Jacob says. “There are people who see problems in their communities and don’t always know what to do about it, and then there are entrepreneurs and hackers who are looking for problems to solve. We want to be a front door for all of them, and to connect all of those different groups and individuals to the resources they need.”

 

At any given time, Jacob and Osgood are supervising a diverse stable of half a dozen or so creative types—civic coders, Web designers, urban planners, management specialists, policy wonks. The duo’s job is to manage programs and to facilitate cooperation among community groups, government offices, and anyone else who has creative ideas for how to solve local problems. Once a technology project has been settled on, the MONUM starts development and then rolls out an early version for roughly four weeks of testing. Sometimes that leads to successful results and spinoff applications, and sometimes it doesn’t.

In 2010, Jacob and Osgood toiled for months on SoChange, an app designed to get people more interested in shopping in their neighborhood. But for any number of reasons the initiative never took off. (Jacob suspects the market simply wasn’t ready at the time.) As with so much of technology, though, incremental failures are often part of a process that leads to eventual success. For example, the first version of Street Bump—the app that detects potholes—analyzed the data in a way that made it difficult to differentiate rim-wrecking offenders from minor divots in the road. Subsequent tweaks to the app made it a success. “The culture of risk-aversion in city government comes from a lack of risk management,” Jacob says. “We’ve created a place to take on that risk—where a city employee who wants to build a widget or a gadget that benefits the city can come with their ideas.”