Boston, a pioneer in the Smart City movement in the United States, has launched the ‘City Score’ project, intended to provide a real-time indicator of the city’s civic health.
According to a report on the What Works Cities initiative published in March, 70% of mid-sized cities in the US “are committed to using data and evidence to make decisions about city programs”. However, only 28% “modify existing programs based on the results of program evaluations”. And when it comes to performance measurement, only 30% of cities which say they have a process in place for analysing their ability to attain their objectives really have the tools and procedures to do so – whether these targets relate to the city’s budget or to citizen satisfaction. So there definitely seems to be a gap between the good intentions declared by the city authorities and the way they actually use data to drive their decision-making. In this regard Boston is an exception.
US mid-sized – i.e. those with populations between 100,000 and 1,000,000 inhabitants – cities’ use of Big Data: there is a gap between declared good intentions and real use of the data (from the The City Hall Data Gap report published by Bloomberg Philanthropies)
Taking Boston’s pulse in real time
With its City Score project Boston is going a step further. “We’ve been running a heavyweight data analysis project at Boston City Hall since 2012,” reveals Kelly Jin, a member of the Analytics team at Boston City Hall, explaining: “We’ve already developed a portal to inform Boston citizens about the range of services the city offers. The second stage focuses on performance management and this time we wanted to build an internal tool to assess the performance of our organisation across City Hall’s various departments. The City Score project is the outcome of this long-term initiative.”
The City Score project has been bubbling since 2014 but was officially launched only in January this year. The idea is to aggregate publicly available data from the city authority’s various departments so as to produce an illuminating daily score on the ‘health’ of the city. A score of 1 means the city is maintaining its standards or hitting targets. A score higher than 1 signifies that the Boston authorities have exceeded their targets or set a new record, while a figure of less than 1 indicates that targets are not being reached and some follow-up is needed. Among the 24 sets of data collected is information ranging from the time a fire engine takes to get to the scene of an incident, to the number of days or weeks it takes the municipal services to fill in potholes in the roads, the city’s crime rate, energy consumption figures, the number of subscribers to the city library and attendance figures in the city’s school classrooms. “The data comes from the city’s various systems and we aggregate it into a single database,” explains Kelly Jin.
Boston is looking pretty good on Friday 13 May: the overall indicator stands at 1.13
An indicator for the Mayor of Boston
The prime role of City Score, which anyone can access online, is to help Boston’s senior managers to take ‘smarter’ decisions based on hard data. Points out Kelly Jin: “City Score gives decision-makers a means of measuring how the city is changing on a daily basis.” For instance Boston Mayor Martin Walsh, who has been driving the project, decided to adjust the budgets so as to increase the number of ambulances available after this aspect scored poorly. With this kind of approach, the mayor is now looking more like a company CEO. City Score thus encourages us to regard public services in the same way as one would view the products and services provided by a private sector firm. “The data is updated on a daily basis so that our CEO, the mayor, can understand how well we’re doing in relation to the targets set by using the indicator, which shows how responsive we are when it comes to satisfying our citizens’ demands,” underlines Kelly Jin.
One might argue that this city ‘score’ is only useful to the higher echelons at City Hall and does not really do anything to foster interaction with citizens. However, this is only the first version. The project team at Boston City Hall is currently working to draw up a second version, which should a) be of use to a greater number of municipal managers and b) provide an interface for residents, with a view to encouraging citizen engagement.
Kelly Jin explains in detail: “We’re working hard to solve the issue of citizen engagement in City Score. Being able to tell the story, being as transparent as possible in the eyes of city residents – that’s what we’re really concerned about right now. We’re also planning to work on a forecasting module. It would be great to be able to for instance identify an endangered building, so that we could send in a troubleshooting team before an unfortunate accident occurs.”
Boston spearheading the Smart City movement in the US
In January 2011 Boston became a symbol of the Smart City movement in the United States, when it was one of four US cities – alongside Philadelphia, Washington and Seattle – selected to participate in the first-ever ‘Fellowship Program’ initiated by US non-profit organisation Code for America. Boston, which boasts a high concentration of schools and universities, also ranks high as a ‘student town’. Flanked by the Harvard and MIT campuses, Boston enjoys a close relationship with the academic sector, a factor which encourages innovative initiatives. A recent example is the highly innovative citywide low-energy-consumption ‘smart building’ model put forward by the MIT Sustainable Design Lab.
Meanwhile, in February 2015, the Boston authorities agreed a partnership with Google-owned GPS-based route navigation app Waze, under its ‘Connected Citizens Program’, the aim being to respond efficiently to the problem of road congestion. On behalf of the city, Waze has taken on the task of sharing data on traffic jams collected directly from car driver input, such as information on accidents and potholes in the road. In exchange, the local authorities have undertaken to inform Waze directly about any road closures, which enables Waze to provide users of its app with the most convenient routes right up to the minute. In addition, the city authorities’ traffic control system relies on real-time data from Waze to adjust the traffic lights at over 500 crossroads in Boston, so as to promote a smoother flow of traffic around the city.
View our feature (in French only) on Boston’s ‘City Score’ project in the 23 April broadcast of L'Atelier Numérique (L’Atelier Digital)