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 |

And Jacob and Osgood don’t limit their efforts to flashy smartphone apps like Street Bump. Take the portal that would enable parents to share data with teachers and afterschool programs. That project was a finalist in the national Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. And then there’s the Discover BPS site, which helps parents identify the schools their children are eligible to attend—a process that was once excruciatingly time-consuming—in just seconds. The MONUM, which works with nearly every Boston agency and office—especially the tech-related ones—has set the tone for this increasingly wired culture at City Hall. Sahni, of the state Health Policy Commission, says that whatever the brilliance of the technology Jacob and Osgood produce, “one of their biggest accomplishments” has been their ability to get different city agencies to work together.

In the spirit of this cooperation, the city’s principal data scientist, Curt Savoie, worked with the city’s IT department, Public Works, and the director of constituent engagement to make the disposal of large items much easier. Now, instead of waiting for a dump truck to appear in your neighborhood, you can call or go online and add your address to a pickup queue. The change cost next to nothing, but has saved residents and city workers time and frustration.

 

As their renown has grown, Jacob and Osgood have been able to cultivate a team of talented civic technologists. Last October, they hired Michael Evans, a programmer who came to work for the MONUM through the lauded Code for America fellowship program. During the recent deadly flu season, Evans repurposed an app developed by the city of Chicago that enables users to track down the closest available vaccine. Municipal IT operatives outside of the immediate MONUM beehive—many of whom were attracted to Boston City Hall because of its tech savviness—also often work with Jacob and Osgood. For instance, Savoie now focuses on parsing and processing the troves of city information that pour in by the second—metrics pertaining to everything from crime to the number of parking tickets issued in any given neighborhood. These are the building blocks for innumerable future MONUM breakthroughs.

For all of Jacob and Osgood’s progress, though, this is still Boston. That means crucial data like the city’s complete crime statistics and budget numbers are still not fully available. (Boston was recently given a D-minus rating by the Massachusetts Public Research Group for its inadequate budget-tracking resources.) That said, the city has recently relaunched its once neglected online open-data portal—a one-stop website where residents can view public-money expenditures, restaurant inspections, and other information that many municipalities have posted online for years. Savoie says there’s also talk of digitizing old records that are currently collecting dust in City Hall storage—for example, birth, death, and marriage certificates dating back hundreds of years.

Jacob, Osgood, and their team are also looking forward. They have a master plan that amounts to turning community involvement into something like an arcade game. The MONUM is working with Emerson College’s Engagement Game Lab on something called Street Cred, with which users will soon be able to earn rewards—virtual at first, with the possibility of a material prize system to follow—for mitzvahs ranging from reporting snowy sidewalks to attending school-board meetings. The plan is for Street Cred to link up with other apps, such as Citizens Connect, as well as the social networking site Foursquare.

Of course, with Menino recently announced that he will not seek a sixth term, everything inside City Hall feels up in the air. It’s too early to know whether the MONUM will survive the mayor, but considering that many of the announced candidates have been trumpeting their support for a more-youthful and forward-looking Boston, the office seems like it could be a fit in any new administration.

Regardless of how city politics shake out, Jacob and Osgood say their primary interest is developing technological tools that can be used by any individual or government, anywhere. They’ve already helped several other cities customize applications that were created for Boston. And since it opened last fall, there’s been daily communication with Philadelphia’s fledgling Office of New Urban Mechanics. Closer to home, through an app called Commonwealth Connect, Osgood and Jacob have also brought Citizens Connect to 25 cities and towns across the state, with more on the way.

“New Urban Mechanics is spreading,” Jacob says. “The idea is that this becomes a new model of infrastructure across cities.”