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.
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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