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In Implementing and Improving Tech, Boston Officials Emphasize People, Quality of Life

Whether seeking a new chief digital officer or improving the city's new website, second-gen open data portal or even traffic safety, CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge said the answer isn't just technology.

The city of Boston activated a job posting on May 9 seeking a new chief digital officer to replace inaugural CDO Lauren Lockwood, whose family is moving to Philadelphia — but in a conversation with Government Technology, CIO Jascha Franklin-Hodge cautioned against seeing the post, or the city's point of view, as primarily tech-focused.

From the new version of that left beta 10 months ago to the second version of its open data portal Analyze Boston, which debuted in beta around three months ago, to street-level safety improvements, Boston has other priorities that outrank technology, Franklin-Hodge told Government Technology.

“We’re always a little wary of that term ‘smart cities’ in part because it tends to be so tech-focused and so often very vendor-driven,” he said.

“This is not a technology job," he added, referring to the posting for Lockwood’s position, which will be deactivated on Monday, June 5. "I think first and foremost, we’re looking for someone who is passionate about making government services work great for constituents. It’s a job focused on how to make life better for the people who live and work in Boston.”

The city hopes to hire a new CDO later this year. But since standing up, one of Lockwood’s signature achievements, the CIO said officials have seen the fallacy inherent in building a website every five years — choosing instead to listen to residents and refine the site rather than rebuild.

Officials are trying to regard the site as “a living and breathing product that needs to evolve” to reflect feedback from customers and changing tech, Franklin-Hodge said.

Customers, which is how residents are frequently regarded in Boston and by city halls around the nation, often have difficulty going online to report problems and make service requests.

To improve and streamline that process — an equity issue for the roughly one in five Americans who rely on a smartphone for Internet access — Boston has been “experimenting with some interesting things,” the CIO said. These include using machine learning to follow service requests from how they’re initially asked by residents to where they end up after recategorization and review.

“We’re using that to make smart suggestions to people so when they start typing about their issue we can say, ‘Hey, is it this type of thing?’ and that will help us get things directed to the right queue,” Franklin-Hodge said, noting that websites and online interactions must accommodate residents who may not distinguish a traffic signal from a street light.

City Hall doesn’t necessarily have a wish list or highest-priority need in the digital realm; but, having inventoried every service it now offers online and finding 305 city services that were not available, it’s engaged in migrating those to the Internet.

So far, the CIO said, 72 city services have been added online, with the idea that making life easier for citizens and businesses will likely free up time for city officials to provide “really good in-person service support” for people who come to 1 City Hall Square for personal service or with more complex issues.

There’s also a Github listing of internal and external forms and PDFs available, ranging from an application to exhibit art at City Hall to a change of business name to an absentee ballot application.

Similarly, Franklin-Hodge said a key lesson learned from the new version of Analyze Boston has been “a recognition that open data had in some ways not quite lived up to the promise” that people may have had for it.

“We were putting a lot of data online," he said, "but we weren’t necessarily turning it into a useful knowledge resource."

To further that aim, he said, officials have been thinking about how data is organized and presented; what kind of metadata and licensing are needed; and how the site might be moved closer to use cases by showcasing existing examples of what people have done using Boston’s open data.

In the future, the city is hoping to release new data sets with visualizations — but also questions, Franklin-Hodge said, “so that hopefully, it can become a bit more of a conversation that people are having around this.”

Even when embarking on what might be considered a “smart city” project, as with recent scrutiny of traffic safety at Massachusetts Avenue and Beacon Street in the city’s Back Bay neighborhood, officials have tried to keep larger policy priorities in mind.

The intersection is currently being evaluated using traffic cameras, video analytics, micro radar sensors and in-road sensors, Franklin-Hodge said, but the ultimate goal is the same: improving residents’ quality of life.

“If we’re not making the road safer," he said, "then we’re not getting any smarter no matter how much technology we’ve deployed."

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.