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New Boston CIO Talks Open Data, Engagement and Access

Blue State Digital founder Jascha Franklin-Hodge outlines his tech priorities for the city.

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced June 25 that the city’s technology efforts would be led by Jascha Franklin-Hodge, founder of Blue State Digital (BSD). Founded in 2004, BSD has provided an online fundraising, email, and CRM platform used by more than 500 clients – including President Barack Obama – accounting for more than $1.6 billion in online donations.

The brand new leader of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology said he doesn’t know where the bathroom is yet, but he was happy to share a general outline of where tech is headed in the city.

The work Franklin-Hodge did through BSD was largely political, but there is some overlap with his new position. BSD was all about using technology to empower people and engage them in the political process so they could participate in issues they cared about, he said.

“That idea of technology as an empowering force that can actually make peoples’ lives better I think is central to a government context,” Franklin-Hodge said. “There’s a real opportunity for the city of Boston to leverage tech to have a substantial positive impact on the lives of the people of Boston.

“It’s critically important that those experiences be good ones, so people walk away feeling like, ‘Hey, I’m getting great service. My government actually gets what I need and it’s helping me get there.' When people are accessing city services, it’s really important that they are simple and easy to use. It’s kind of a no-brainer but something that government doesn’t always get right. It’s easy to get lost in a maze of complicated Web pages. There’s a lot of technical and legal language on them, so everything that we can do to make the services of the city more accessible to people is going to be key.”

He added that the city also will look for ways to crowdsource ideas and listen closely to what the public wants.

Another focus area will be open data, Franklin-Hodge said. “I think there are a few great reasons to want to do this. Open data is certainly a way of increasing transparency and accountability for the city to the people that it serves. It’s also a great way to engage with the start-up and academic communities, which are incredible here in Boston,” he said. “It’s a way to help city departments work more effectively with each other, because if somebody in transportation needs information about housing for a planning project that they’re doing and that requires them to make a special call and arrange a separate data transfer, that’s not particularly efficient. If they can go on a website and just access the information that they need, along with any citizens who may be interested in that, there’s a real benefit to the way the city operates.”

In addition, the city will increase efforts to improve access to technology and technology skills for Boston residents, Franklin-Hodge said. Boston launched Wicked Free Wi-Fi, a network of Wi-Fi hotspots, in April as part of the mayor’s initiative to improve technology access, and other projects are in the works, he said.

“Free Wi-Fi is just one component of that. We’re not going to do a city-wide Wi-Fi network, but we’re thinking across the board about what the city can do to encourage better access to the Internet, development of technical skills,” he said, adding that those efforts will include providing a better Internet connectivity to schools.

The future of Boston’s technology is rooted in projects like Citizens Connect, the city’s 311 app, Franklin-Hodge said, because it’s not just a way of showing residents that government is responding to their concerns, but also a way of informing future work. “I think that’s a ... data-driven approach to prioritizing work, to measuring performance and making decisions about how to best use finite resources,” he said. “One of the challenges and something we’re very excited about here in Boston is how to take all that data that we’re collecting and really use it as a smart decision-making tool. I think whether you look in the corporate space or in government, it’s really still the early days of what big data can do as a decision-making tool.”

Franklin-Hodge has worked with many politicians through Blue State Digital, but this is his first leadership position in government, he said. “My work style is really about listening as hard as I can and hearing as many viewpoints as I can, but also moving quickly, making decisions," he said. "We need to make sure we’re not rash, but recognize that tech moves fast and if you’re not moving at that speed, those are missed opportunities.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.