Boston’s data plan

Mayor Marty Walsh is determined to go boldly into the 21st century. Or at least make sure Boston arrives, even if a little late, at the end of the 20th.

So it was that the mayor stood yesterday, appropriately enough, in the middle of the city’s Innovation District (also known as the Seaport District, also known as South Boston) to unveil Boston’s new 311 call system for reporting non-emergency matters in need of municipal attention.

The 311 system, first launched in Baltimore in 1996, has made its way to plenty of US cities, including Somerville, but former mayor Tom Menino was having none of it. The man who famously eschewed voice mail in City Hall insisted that a standard, 10-digit phone number known as the “mayor’s hotline” would do just fine, thank you, for his city.

Under Walsh, Boston is finally joining the 311 parade.

Just what should residents use 311 to report?  WGBH’s Mike Deehan has a helpful primer: “Not sure when street cleaning or trash pickup is for your block? Want to know what to do with the baby possum you found trapped in a city recycling bin? Is that junkie back on your stoop? Hell, just want to tell the mayor to stop wearing pleated pants in public?”

OK, maybe skip the snarky sartorial sallies at Hizzoner. But you get the idea.

Daniel Koh, Walsh’s chief of staff, has said Boston is committed to an intensive Moneyball level use of data to drive improvements in municipal government. Koh even penned a piece earlier this year likening Walsh to Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane, the inspiration for the best-selling Michael Lewis book documenting the winning ways of a data-focused approach in baseball.

Boston’s plunge into the modern municipal era is welcome news. But it brings its own challenges. Not least of these is the near certainty of a big increase in constituent reports of problems. The introduction of 311 systems elsewhere has invariably led to big spikes in citizen complaints. That puts city government on the hook for performing at a higher level — and means there will be plenty of scrutiny of how it’s doing.

In April, after the Walsh administration reported filling 50 percent more potholes in its first year than in the last year of the Menino reign, the Globe asked somewhat skeptically, “what, exactly, qualifies as a pothole?” The story went out to dissect the city numbers, finding at least 350 reports of filled potholes that were double-counted and 275 potholes that crews could not locate but were nonetheless recorded as filled. In February, the Globe reported that the city mistakenly closed out 9,000 cases related to snow removal complaints.

The other challenge is that the 311 system, complete with a smartphone app and Twitter handle for submitting complaints, provides a sharp contrast to the administration’s apparent befuddlement over how to retrieve text messages the mayor exchanged during the Olympics deliberation. Meanwhile, the fact that potholes or missing street signs can be documented and reported with a cameraphone may serve to spotlight Police Commissioner William Evans’s recent comments that some limits might be good on citizens using those same phones to record police encounters.

The city’s arrival in the 311 era is long overdue and signals a healthy appreciation by the Walsh administration for innovation in the delivery of municipal services. But city government will also find it harder and harder to just pick and choose off the digital-age menu.




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The Globe‘s Evan Horowitz tries to flesh out whether the troubled Department of Children and Families is doing better today than a year ago.


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Boston is trimming a tax break it gave to Vertex Pharmaceuticals by $3 million because the company has fallen way short of the job growth numbers it promised in exchange for the deal. (Boston Globe)

There have been at least 13 bicyclists killed on Boston streets over the past five years. (Boston Globe)

The Worcester City Council engages in an emotional debate about one councilor’s call for State Police help in stemming violence in the municipality. (Telegram & Gazette)

Standard & Poor’s reaffirmed Brockton’s AA credit rating, one step below its highest AAA rating, but issued a “negative” outlook, saying the city needs to make structural changes to avoid the repetitive budget deficits. (The Enterprise)

The Braintree Town Council has passed an ordinance barring utilities from digging up roads for non-emergencies for 10 years after they’ve been newly paved. (Patriot Ledger)


Boston Mayor Marty Walsh offers to keep talking with Steve Wynn, despite Wynn’s claim that he’s done negotiating with the mayor. The mayor also acknowledges he may have misunderstood Wynn’s nine-figure money offer. (CommonWealth)

The proposed Wampanoag casino divides Martha’s Vineyard. (Washington Post)


About half of the Massachusetts congressional delegation is still on the fence on President Obama’s (and former colleague John Kerry’s) nuclear deal with Iran. (Associated Press)

Amnesty International votes to recommend decriminalizing prostitution and other sex work. (Time)


Feeling the Bern: Bernie Sanders surges past Hillary Clinton in a new poll of likely New Hampshire Democratic primary voters. (Boston Herald) Makes for a good pairing with this Globe story on Clinton’s reluctance to take a firm stand on a number of issues large and small.

Clinton is turning over her personal email server to the Department of Justice. (Time)

New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell announces he will run for a third term in the fall. (Standard-Times)

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Three Republican women — two former New Hampshire state representatives and the head of the Massachusetts GOP — defend Donald Trump, saying the billionaire candidate is being persecuted by the politically correct left. (Greater Boston)

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Williams College is undertaking $278 million in capital projects, work that has become a boon to the local economy by providing jobs and triggering ancillary construction. (Berkshire Eagle)

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Salem sixth graders will learn about potential job paths from citizen teachers. (Salem News)

Fall River Mayor Samuel Sutter says he will reinstate school crossing guards before classes resume in September, just weeks after cutting them from the fiscal 2016 police budget and just before voters go to the polls for the preliminary election. (Herald News)


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The Department of Environmental Protection has fined Eversource, formerly known as NStar, $10,000 for a 2014 oil spill in Springfield that the company failed to report to the state. (The Republican)


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Inmates at a New York prison where two convicted killers escaped in June were allegedly beaten and tortured by guards in retribution in the wake of the escape even though only prison workers have been implicated. (New York Times)