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Tech Tools, Dashboards Help Boston Spark Citizen Interest in Open Data

Future efforts may involve predictive analytics as city contemplates the future of putting public information to work for a better quality of life.

Boston is famously a college town, and as such, this time of year brings hordes of students — both returning and new — to the city in need of a place to live.

Many of them are renters, grappling with standard renter problems: finding a place, securing a place, connecting with a trustworthy landlord. For years, Boston's had data that held potential to help with this last pain point, info the potential lessees could use to evaluate a property. Now, the city made this info easier for people who aren’t data scientists to access and use. It has created a portal called RentSmart, where users can enter an address and be brought directly to open data about the property, including its valuation and whether there have been citations against the owner.

“It allows you to see in a matter of seconds what’s happened at a property in the last 3 or 5 years at that address,” said Adam Roy, chief technology officer for Qlarion, a private company that worked with Boston on RentSmart.

RentSmart is one of a number of new resident-facing online tools Boston has created in order to make its open data more accessible, with others including an award-winning Vision Zero map and Analyze Boston, a new iteration of the city’s open data portal that was specifically designed to foster increased use among all residents, regardless of how tech or data savvy they are. The city is also using public-facing dashboards to foster civic engagement with regard to a long-term guiding plan called Imagine Boston 2030.

The Vision Zero map launched earlier this year, and RentSmart and Imagine Boston 2030 debuted this month. Andrew Therriault, Boston’s chief data officer, said this is indicative of a larger push by the major stakeholders in the city — including the technologists, public servants and leadership — to foster more citizen use of open data.

Putting substantial amounts of open data online is one thing, and it is, of course, necessary. But oftentimes in Boston and other cities, this route results in an open data portal that is largely used by people who already know how to work with data. The average Bostonian, in other words, probably won’t comb large datasets to find complaints against a potential landlord, or reports that indicate where the most accidents happen in the city.  

What tools like RentSmart and the Vision Zero map do is take existing datasets and present them in new, often-searchable ways anyone with basic computer competence can use. The Vision Zero map is a perfect example of this, as it unites a visual collection of maps, apps, charts and infographics, thereby creating a centralized platform where both citizens and public servants can quickly pinpoint areas where congestion and traffic accidents are a problem. It also has a functionality that allows citizens to report traffic concerns, essentially crowdsourcing once-costly civic research to give decision-makers insight into where to deploy resources.

“For this story map, no new maps were created,” said Joyce John, a story mapper with the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology, who oversees the project. “It was just bringing them together and showing how they go together.”

The indications in Boston so far are that these measures are working. Citizens used the Vision Zero map, for example, to flag more than 11,000 concerns within the first six months.

Much of this work involves taking existing data infrastructure the city uses internally and making it available to the public. Boston is not alone in this, with cities across the country striving to accomplish similar goals of getting more people to access open data by making it easier to comb through. Cincinnati has also launched a number of public-facing interactive data tools through its own portal, Cincy Insights.

“Open data is great, it’s really cool, it makes people feel good and it should,” said Cincinnati Chief Performance Officer Leigh Tami. “It’s a really important movement, but it’s not totally accessible to everyone in the same way, depending on knowledge or experience.”

That’s exactly what technologists in Boston, Cincinnati and many other jurisdictions want to change. In addition to the initiatives that already launched, Boston is working on other exciting concepts with open data, concepts that are a bit more complex.

One is called health Boston, which developers described as “in its infancy.” The goal of this is to compress an 800-page report with information about health in Boston into a concept that provides users with more value.

The city is also building predictive models with traffic data that can indicate where car accidents are likely to occur. The goal with this, as with much of the work, is to make something open source that other communities and jurisdictions can benefit from as well. To do this, Boston is working with a community data science volunteer group called Data for Democracy.

“It’s a great example of where we’re trying to go,” Therriault said. “It’s to think about not only how we present data to be generally informative, but it can also be actionable and help address some of these big picture problems we’re trying to solve.”

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine.