New Boston Mayor Represents Sea Change in Use of Smart City Technology

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The Boston Globe recently ran a front-page story about how the city’s new mayor has two big computer monitors in his office that he uses to keep tabs on various goings-on in the city, from the number of potholes and call volumes on the city’s hotline to activity on its Facebook page.

The story caught my eye for a couple of reasons. For one, it is a complete sea change from the way the previous mayor of Boston did business. Tom Menino was famous, or infamous, for “shunning email,” as the Globe put it and not even having a computer on his desk. (It must’ve really hurt him because he only lasted 20 years.)

But the other reason was that the “dashboards” that Mayor Marty Walsh uses strike me as another step forward in the smart city concept that we’ve covered on this blog from time to time.

As the Globe reports:

For years, Boston and other cities across the United States have been poring through information related to such areas as crime, traffic, and potholes, looking for patterns that would help provide better or more efficient services. Urban managers — and corporate executives — have embraced the use of so-called big data to track performance, improve efficiency, and gain new insights.

But by flowing all that data onto two screens in the mayor’s office — sending it directly to the top of the chain of command — it is possible for him to discern the pulse of daily life in the city, and to figure out what is or isn’t working. And while some might find the concentration of information overwhelming, Walsh finds it helpful.

The story recounts how Walsh can easily keep tabs on everything from the percentage of school buses running on schedule to the number of calls coming in to the city’s 24-hour hot line. If he sees the number rising, he can have an aide see if something unusual is happening.

Walsh borrowed the idea from another Boston-area native, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. As the Globe reports:

During his 12-year tenure as the top elected official in New York City, Bloomberg pushed his staff to find innovative ways to analyze a dizzying amount of data being collected from all parts of the city. The aim was to use computers to discover previously overlooked issues and find solutions to ones that had long proved frustrating.

In one case, New York officials analyzed building data to determine which were more susceptible to fires, and then dispatched inspectors to those properties. Boston has undertaken similar efforts to target negligent landlords and to cut down on traffic congestion.

While the story never mentions the term “smart city,” it does talk about what makes it all possible: software that can analyze vast amounts of data to find valuable nuggets that are helpful to city planners, first-responders and executives like Walsh. For example, other bloggers have reported on a video surveillance solution that Schneider Electric offers with its partner IBM, with Schneider providing the video cameras and IBM the software that analyzes all the video.

Given that context, it’s likely no coincidence that the Globe story quotes Katharine Fraser, chief technology officer of IBM’s Global Public Sector, speaking to the software side of the issue:

It’s capable of making sense of the ever-expanding oceans of digital information that flow from standard computers, smartphones, and even street lights and trash cans equipped with sensors.

And providing information on what’s going on now is just the beginning, as the Globe reports:

“They allow a city to begin to make policy and implement interventions on a proactive rather than purely reactive basis,” said Charlie Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data in Chicago.

Several cities are already using predictive data tools that have the potential to pinpoint crime flare-ups eight to 12 hours in advance, said Catlett. To some, that kind of technology might conjure unsettling images from the 2002 Steven Spielberg sci-fi film “Minority Report,” in which police arrested people who were about to commit crimes.

I don’t know about that, but we do know smart city technology can help arrest people who already did commit crimes – like the Boston Marathon bombing for example. And public safety is just one of many areas that the technology addresses along with energy, education, health and social services and lots more (see this previous post on Microsoft’s CityNext initiative for more insights). As a lifelong Boston-area resident, it’s good to see the new mayor headed in the smart city direction.

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