Articles

Analytics Play Key Role in Boston’s Tech Modernization

Beantown's Citywide Analytics Team is bringing the power of data to everything the city does.

by / July 27, 2015

Until recently, when staff at Boston’s Inspectional Services Department (ISD) wanted to create or update building permits and applications, they pulled out an ancient IBM typewriter and went to work.

But when Martin Walsh became Boston’s new mayor in 2014, he made it clear he was committed to using technology a bit newer than a typewriter to run the city. Instead, he wanted a city data-driven from the bottom up.

“Mayor Walsh made it clear he wanted to improve the tools city leaders had to manage their departments for the benefit of the city and its citizens overall,” said Deputy CIO Matt Mayrl. “He also wanted improved technology to help him understand the operations of the city’s 43 different departments and 14 different cabinets, as well as the allocation of the Department of Information Technology’s $2.5 billion budget.”

Clearly the typewriter at ISD would have to go. 

Last January, as part of his comprehensive undertaking to modernize the city’s technology assets, Walsh announced the creation of the Citywide Analytics Team. Walsh’s vision was a team that would serve as a central point for the city to gather information and work across traditional departmental silos, drive new public-private partnerships around data projects, engage colleges and tech companies, and identify outside funding to help expand the impact throughout the city. 

“The goal is really about bringing the power of data to everything the city does,” said Mayrl. “The Citywide Analytics Team wants to be the part of the city that is helping ask and answer better questions to improve the delivery of services to Boston residents.”

Mayrl and Kelly Jin, data visualization lead, head up the Citywide Analytics Team. Their goal is help departments solve operational problems with modern tech tools and to use data to make city government more transparent, effective and accessible than ever before.

The mayor’s first priority for the Citywide Analytics Team was to create a data dashboard that would allow him to easily view the status of technology projects in each of the city’s 43 departments.

“We had one week to deliver it,” said Mayrl. “We met the deadline, but we knew it was really only a starting point. We needed a better visualization tool and also wanted a consistent tool that each of the department heads could eventually use across all levels of their organizations.”

The Citywide Analytics Team enlisted the help of Tableau Software to accomplish this goal. Today, the mayor utilizes a Tableau dashboard to get up-to-the-minute information on the status of city IT projects. Citizens can view the same data the mayor sees via the city’s website. 

The team’s next challenge was building dashboards for each of the city’s 14 cabinet leaders to enable them to better manage their respective areas. The first priority: ISD. 

The Inspectional Services Department is composed of five regulatory divisions whose aim is to administer and enforce building, housing, health, sanitation and safety regulations mandated by both city and state government. But ISD had become hopelessly backlogged, and Mayor Walsh was particularly interested improving the city’s permit process speed.

“There was general frustration with us over our inability to track things and get pertinent information to citizens or confirmation of when things could happen, etc.,” said ISD Commissioner William Christopher. “We had several systems working, but they didn’t speak well to each other. Citizens were frustrated because ISD was essentially a black hole — they couldn’t get ahold of anyone and they never knew when they were going to hear anything back.”

The Citywide Analytics Team worked closely with ISD to develop a series of dashboards that now provide ISD inspectors up-to-the-minute information on the status of their projects. In addition, citizens can now go to permits.boston.gov to find out the status of a permit, see who is reviewing it and how long they have had it, and obtain a contact number so they can reach out to that person directly for additional information.

“They have been able to take all the things I was concerned about but could not implement and put that into a format that became information we can use,” said Christopher. “I can tell you things about ISD now that have never been available before. This year we’ve issued 63,000 building permits. In a matter of an hour I could tell you where any one of those permits currently stands in the system.” 

The undertaking made ISD significantly more efficient and has also improved citizen satisfaction. Ultimately it’s also saving tax dollars that can be better spent elsewhere.

“The time frame overall in ISD has been drastically reduced, and it’s because we’re now able to manage all this information,” Christopher said. “For so long we just collected data. Now we're using it, which is not only profitable for the city in terms of making us more efficient, but for the citizens, because now we have real predictability.”

The solution also helps Christopher better manage personnel.

“I have 250 people working here,” he said. “This tool allows me to manage them so much better. I can track a personnel issue through each of our five divisions. I can see the flow of information and I can redirect things if needed to get the most value out of our efforts.”

Christopher also said that he can get all this data at anytime from anywhere utilizing a mobile device.

“I travel around the city a lot to different departments,” he said. “With the dashboard, I can keep track of what’s going on in my department from anywhere. If the mayor calls me about something while I’m on the road, I can look it up while I talk to him and give him an answer instantly.”

Christopher said the total amount of permits ISD issued this year is up about 40 percent, but he hasn’t added a single additional staff person — and the department is still managing to improve its return rates. 

“The difference is the technology, because it’s now truly working for us,” he said.

By mid-fall, the Citywide Analytics Team hopes to arm each of the city’s cabinet leaders with their own dashboard, said Jin. After that, the team has many more ideas of how and where they can help the city.

“We want to get deeper into operational problems and how to solve them,” said Mayrl. 

For example, the team is currently working with the transportation department and parking enforcement division to perform analytics on double-parked cars and their effects on city traffic.

“That opens the doors for us to talk about how we might allocate resources differently in traffic signal timing, staffing plans, etc.,” said Mayrl. “We want to continue to get to those deeper level questions, which can eventually help us achieve the improved performance the mayor seeks.”

Justine Brown Contributing Writer