Unique Ways Data is Improving the City of Boston

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As marketers in the private sector, we all use data to drive more personalized experiences and to gain insights on KPIs–data is the lifeblood of marketing.

What happens when you take that same data-driven approach and apply that to the public sector? What are the KPIs? How does data affect city services?

In this interview, I sit down with Boston’s Chief of Staff, Daniel Koh, who shares his insights on how data is transforming the way that the City of Boston operates. From city scoring, to trash collection to pothole repair, data is feeding intelligence to leadership in order to make smarter decisions. Personally, I love the pothole paparazzi.

Daniel Koh Interview Highlights

In this interview with Boston’s Chief of Staff, Daniel Koh, we go behind the scenes at city hall to learn how Boston uses data for everything from pothole repair to library management. He is going to tell us some exciting ways that Boston is using data to improve the lives of Bostonians.

  • What has happened over the past couple of years in Boston? “Well I think for us, when we came into the office and the mayor came into our office three years ago, he realized that Boston is a $2.8 billion dollar operating budget organization. If we are in the private sector, it would be a Fortune 1000 company, deeply data driven, and in any private sector organization, the numbers help drive the organization. But the reality is at the municipal level, most organizations just don’t have that kind of data driven rigor.”

So, the mayor instructed me to help him create the first 21st century public organization that uses data to help a drive a number of risk decision making. Daniel Koh

  • “So that’s how it started and took us a long time to get to a point to where we were getting the data every day, but now we have data that is daily–everything from the number of library users we have to the number of pot holes we filled the day before.”
  • How has the culture change been? “It’s been really exciting because a lot of people, public sector employees, they want this. They want to be tracking these kinds of things. We have a great story of a veteran services secretary who was so excited because we asked for a number of calls, she rallied everyone around her, beat the score from the day before. So we saw this culture change of people tracking metric, excited about it, wanting to beat their scores from the day before.”
    • Finding a balance: “Of course there are some negative effects that can happen if you don’t set the right safe guards as a result of being purely data driven. But we feel like we have struck the right balance and we have really helped the employees here embrace data.”
  • There are some wireless trashcans in the city. How does that work and how does it feed data? “Well a lot of people who walk around the city notice that there are these fancy looking trashcans that blink with lights, they are solar powered. But what people don’t realize is that these are smart trashcans. We have real-time insights on our phones, all kinds of fill levels for the different trashcans–yellow, red and green depending on how full they are. It allows us to understand what are the different beats of the city from a trash perspective, how we can optimize our routes around the fill levels rather than just going up one street and down the other. That allows for better city services, helps save gas, and saves a lot of time and frustration.”

At the end of the day that’s what we are here for, to deliver the most efficient city services possible. Daniel Koh

  • I hear some paparazzi out there taking pictures of potholes, what’s going on there? “We introduced this app called 311. It is an app you download on your phone, and you can take a picture of a pothole you see and send it to the city. We try to make it human, as human efficient as possible, so if you send me a pothole, not only do you get a picture of the pothole filled, but you get a photo of the team that filled it. So we are trying to make it a personal connection. We are trying to make it efficient and we are trying to make people, encourage people to be good citizens, because we feel like if they get that feedback, then they will feel really good about it and want to do it again.”
  • How are you operationalizing the data in city hall? “That is a great point, so we have all this data, right? We know what we are getting, what we want is to get context from the data, so we created this system called ‘City Score’. The idea is we have targets for everything, how many library users we have, the number of pot holes we filled, how quickly we have filled them. So we have not scored each one of those things, and given an overall score for the city every day. It is publicly available; you can go to Boston.gov/cityscore and check it out. We have weekly meetings to review all that data.”
    • Measuring Progress: “So it’s not only just we filled 92 pot holes yesterday, but it’s we filled 92 pot holes yesterday, how does that drive with what our targets are? It goes all the way up to the mayor; the mayor has monthly meetings with this. It is our way to help keep ourselves accountable, and it is our way to make things as efficient as possible.”
  •  Are you using dashboards throughout city hall? And you have them in your office, right? That’s right. I have a dashboard in my office, the mayor has four in his office–just a way for us to stay honest. In an ideal world we would be reviewing data all day long. In reality that’s just not how it works. So having it up and available means that at any given moment in any microsecond of spare time, we can be looking up and looking at that data, seeing what’s not on track and being able to repair as quickly as possible.”
  • What is your favorite part of the day? “Favorite part of my day is being able to do the one-on- one constituent services. We have this high level data stuff, its fancy, it looks cool, but at the end of the day, each day I get a request about something going wrong in someone’s neighborhood, this trash, pothole, whatever. End of the day that is our job just to make peoples lives just a little bit better and those things.”

So the best part is knowing that if someone calls we will be able to help. Daniel Koh

  • What would you say is your secret talent? A secret talent nobody knows about. It’s not baseball and you would know that. But no, I think the reality is in this environment, especially in the city, I am surrounded by incredible employees who have worked in their fields for 20 – 30 years. So for me as a relatively young person in this role, it would be a mistake for me to go into a room and say, ‘I learned in class we should be running the city this way so — here is what your orders are.’ That’s not the way to do it.”
    • Listening is better than talking: “There are people around who really understand this stuff, so what I try to do is be a facilitator and try to learn from peoples’ expertise and help the mayor come to the best decision possible. Sometimes that is my own thoughts but a lot of the times it’s the thoughts of the really incredible people around me. I think that’s something I pay particular attention to, because I think the best people in these positions are ones who do more listening than talking.”
  • If you had to pick a favorite cartoon character, what would that be? So I was a big X MEN fan and Wolverine was my favorite. So Wolverine was a guy with a lot of determination, he wasn’t the biggest guy; I think he was a short guy. But he was one of those guy who had his morals straight and was fighting for the common good every day, so Wolverine is my guy.”

So today we learned about all the great things going on from a technology perspective in Boston. We also learned that Daniel’s favorite cartoon character involves X MEN. Until next time on RevEngine Insider.

Alyssa Reeves
Alyssa Reeves
Alyssa spearheads our content development at RevEngine Insider and also assists in managing our editorial calendar. She is very passionate about marketing and is very excited to be aboard the RevEngine team. In her free time, Alyssa enjoys spending her time outside and at the beach.

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