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 |
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.

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.”

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.”

Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/news/article/2013/04/30/new-urban-mechanics/