While driving around Boston one day, Nigel Jacob, co-chair of Boston’s Department of New Urban Mechanics, spied a group of public works employees at a job site staring intently at their phones. It turned out they were using Citizens Connect, an app Jacob’s department had developed for Bostonians to report public works issues, like potholes, street lights, and graffiti. Rather than following the arduous process of printing our requests and locating those requests on a map in order to fill a pothole, Public Works employees had discovered they could track requests as they came in using Citizens Connect. When the guys who fill potholes start independently using the same app citizens are using to report potholes, you know you’ve got a winner.
Some cities seem to take an approach to digital that either involves throwing a bunch of stuff against a wall to see what sticks, or focusing on back-end upgrades that are largely invisible to citizens. Boston, however, has a unique approach which has not only earned it recognition as a top digital city, but which also allows the city to develop truly user-centered digital applications. Co-chaired by Nigel Jacob and Chris Osgood, the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics acts more like an open-door digital consultancy than just another city agency in that it spends time talking to city agencies and citizens alike in order to find out what people need and then developing accordingly. In other words, the office gets users involved throughout the process in a meaningful way, and the result is apps that work.
While the approach many cities take of improving back-end systems is certainly essential to a city’s digital success, no citizens ever danced in the streets because the sanitation department upgraded their database. For people to start interacting online with their city governments, they need to first have something tangible to interact with, and they must then trust that they will actually be able to accomplish what they set out to do. Free Wi-Fi in the park is nice and all, but for a city to truly be digital it must offer city websites and apps that are easy to use and deliver results. So while upgrading a system may be ultimately useful to the end user, cities must also embrace projects that solve a true user need.
"Usually a government service is looking at the enterprise systems that they have and thinking about how to expose part of that," explains Nigel Jacob. "Our approach was to focus on the user experience and think about what should be there and what should not be there."
Which is why Boston started with potholes. Because it turns out that when you ask city agencies in Boston what the biggest problem Bostonians are facing, the answer you get is potholes, followed by graffiti and faulty streetlights. But mostly potholes. And while the answer might not be that surprising, given Boston’s climate and narrow streets, the important part is that the city asked the question in the first place. Boston knew they needed to get the first project right if they wanted their citizens to trust that the city could create useful sites and apps. They’d already created a hard-to-navigate site for city services and a call center that didn’t respond in a timely manner to citizen requests. Whatever Boston did first in the app space had to work.
Before the Boston team even got to potholes, they overhauled the city call center’s technical and management systems in order to ensure that it would be able to process citizens’ requests in a timely manner. Then the team did some competitive research. They looked at apps other cities had created and saw that many of them failed because those cities had attempted to shove every city service into their app, which in turn created overly complex and hard-to-use interfaces. So the Boston team decided to narrow their focus to developing a digital version of the city’s call center, which was now running smoothly thanks to the overhaul the team had conducted the year before.
The end result, Citizens Connect, is something like the digital equivalent of listening to a police scanner. To watch the app in action is to see both the city’s inhabitants as they go about their daily business and the Boston government as it responds to citizen’s needs. Citizens report clogged storm drains, excessive jackhammer noise, illegal trash dumping, and faulty street lights, complete with pictures. Reported cases then go directly into the city’s work order queue for resolution, and users are informed how quickly the case will be closed. When cases are resolved the date and time of the resolution is listed, providing users with the sense that the city is on the job.
In addition to building the app, the Boston team knew they needed to deliver on whatever the app promised, so they worked with the public works department to ensure that the app gave appropriate response times. A quick glance through the outpouring of love on the App Store for Citizens Connect shows that the app does in fact deliver on its promises: "I made a report for a pothole and it was fixed the next day," reads a typical review.
While Citizens Connect works after a problem has occurred, the team at New Urban Mechanics wanted to detect problems before they’d been reported. So the team hit on the idea of using a smartphone’s accelerometer to detect when someone hits a pothole, and joined forces with local professor with Fabio Carerra to develop such a device. Unfortunately the device was easy to fool. It found potholes where no potholes existed. The team realized they needed a smart algorithm to sort through the data and find the true potholes. At which point they turned to a favorite device of other local governments: the app contest.
But in Boston’s case, they ran a very smart app contest. They worked to clearly define the problem, presented a concise data set, and opened it up to the public. The end result was seven high-quality solutions, ultimately narrowed down to three winners, whose algorithms are currently being implemented, with the app set to release this summer. If it works, it will allow Boston’s citizens to report potholes without doing anything more than driving around town.
These are the types of ideas and approaches that come out of an organization whose primary focus is using technology to improve citizens’ quality of life.
"Our work is at the intersection between the public and the government," says Jacob, who says the office is primarily interested in looking at how citizens and government currently interact, and how technology can improve upon that model. Which is to say, Boston takes a look at what the users are doing, what their needs are, how those needs are currently met by government, and how technology can make all of that better. If only more cities approached digital that way, imagine what that could do for our nation’s overall quality of life.