Boston’s Strategy for Open Data and Citizen Engagement

A forward-thinking leader. Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s mayor from 1993 to 2014, never hesitated to go beyond his comfort zone to make Boston better for citizens and for the people who work in or visit the city. A case in point was his 2006 decision to create a CIO role within his cabinet. That decision […]

When it comes to opening government data and engaging citizens in initiatives, Boston is often cited as a leading-edge player. Interviews with city staff, SAP experts, and industry analysts suggest several reasons why.

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A forward-thinking leader. Thomas M. Menino, Boston’s mayor from 1993 to 2014, never hesitated to go beyond his comfort zone to make Boston better for citizens and for the people who work in or visit the city. A case in point was his 2006 decision to create a CIO role within his cabinet. That decision speaks volumes about the mayor’s widely shared belief that technology needs to have a seat at the strategy table.

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Alignment with the city’s culture. It’s estimated that as mayor, Menino personally met close to 60% of the people in the city – that’s a city with 646,000 residents and another million or so people coming in every day to work. Bill Oates, Boston’s CIO, believes that Menino’s personal touch defines Boston’s culture. As Oates’ team started opening the government and increasing citizen engagement through technology, Menino’s approach was their guide.
“We want the city’s data initiatives to be true to Boston’s very personal brand,” Oates says. “For example, if an app on your mobile phone enables us to find and fix potholes more quickly than we could in the past, that’s great. But we’re not only going to fix the pothole; we’re going to send you a picture of that fixed pothole from the guy who fixed it for you.”

“Our hope is that is we are able to build trust with people for that one particular thing they used technology to access us for,” adds Oates. “Then in the future, they’re going to be more willing to be our eyes and ears on the street, to be reporting things they see, helping keep the quality of life on their street and in their neighborhood positive.”

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The willingness to be held accountable for progress. Boston About Results (BAR), a performance-management dashboard, is available to anyone through the city’s Web site. It posts the strategic priorities of various city departments, including public health, neighborhood development, public works, schools, police, fire, elderly affairs, and treasury, and progress toward those goals. BAR seeks to answer three questions: What is city government doing? How well is it doing it? How can the government do it better? BAR explicitly links the city’s mission to its actions.

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An approach that purposefully links data to decision making. “Transparency has to be accompanied by visibility and understanding. Data can’t just be ‘out there,’” says Adam Roy, vice president of operations for Qlarion, a consulting firm that works with Oates’ group. That’s why he and his colleagues strive to ensure that the data they release is meaningful to its intended audience, whether that’s the general public, friendly hackers looking to create new solutions for the city, or the city’s senior-level decision makers.

Says Roy, “We ask: What does this audience need in order to learn what it is they want to know? What information will be helpful? What will be distracting? How should the data be presented? What form will best suit their needs?”

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About the author:

Dante Ricci is director of Global Public Sector Marketing for SAP.

Elizabeth McGowan is director of Technology and Innovation Industry Business Solutions Public Sector at SAP.

Sundu Venkataramani is senior principal of Industry Value Engineering for SAP.

Regina Maruca is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology topics.

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#feature, hero, Citizen Engagement