Susan Crawford made a national name for herself as a vocal advocate for a more progressive approach to tech policy, including during her stint in the Obama White House, but in recent years she’s turned her attention to somewhat more local affairs.
Crawford, co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, is a law professor by background, but she spent last year teaching a course called "Solving Problems with Technology," working closely with Boston’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and doing hands-on fieldwork in the neighborhood of Dudley.
Now Crawford is the co-author, with Berkman assistant Dana Walters, of a new case study on the work of New Urban Mechanics in general and, in particular, its approach to equipping the city with a “citizen relationship manager” capable of capturing and processing Bostonians’ requests for help.
"Urban mechanic" started as a slur against Boston’s long-serving mayor Thomas Menino from the pen of a local journalist. It meant that Menino lacked vision, that all he knew how to do was fix things. The office appropriated the term, using it to brand "an approach to civic innovation focused on delivering transformative City services to residents."
Opened three years ago, the Office of New Urban Mechanics tends to be lumped in with Code for America. Certainly some of the same forces that led to the former led to the latter: Budget-crunched cities having to do more with less and the fairly sudden proliferation of powerful and cheap, if not free, software tools. (Philadelphia, too, now has its own Office of New Urban Mechanics.)
But the "new mechanics" actually come at things from distinct footing. Civic innovation, according to Nigel Jacob, co-chair of Boston’s office, isn’t driven by technology, even if it often makes use of it. Instead, it reflects the plodding nature of its inspiration. Urban mechanics is about "the nuts and bolts of how cities work," Jacob said in an interview this spring, "making sure the roads are school and the schools open on time."
The Boston Mayor’s Hotline that serves as the focus of Crawford and Walters’ research serves as sort of a proxy for Menino himself. The mayor is a hands-on politician, quite literally — a poll in the spring when he was considering running for reelection found that nearly half of all Bostonians reported meeting him in person at least once. As a Boston Herald columnist wrote earlier this week, "His product was himself and no one could sell it as well as he did, sticking out his hand and saying, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Menino.’"
Newark, N.J. Mayor Cory Booker has gotten unprecedented press attention for doing something similar, on Twitter at least, where he personally responds to requests for help. Went one tweet, "I can deliver baby supplies. Can u DM me your exact address?" Booker’s stream-of-id Twitter feed has 1.4 million followers. Menino, mayor of a city more than twice Newark’s size, has a dry, staff-run Twitter account with 49,000 followers.
But Menino has the Mayor’s Hotline. Where other cities have focused their energies on figuring out predictive analytics or open data, Crawford and Walters write, Boston has zeroed in on bettering constituent services. Befitting Boston’s intimate feel, City Hall opted even to forgo the 311 three-digit approach of other cities. For Boston, it’s the full, old-school, 10-digit number: 617-635-4500.
After the hotline’s launch in 2008, Menino himself would call it first thing in the morning to see if he reached a real-live human. (When I called the number, after two rings a friendly female voice answered. "Good afternoon, mayor’s office…") The point of the Mayor’s Hotline is to retain the sort of intensely social approach that Booker has brought to Newark, while actually filling potholes in a systematic way in a city of more than half a million people.
It’s the sort of thing that was once done with paper and pen. Today, say you’re living in the Back Bay, spy a hole in the road, and want to tell the city about it. Under the Office of New Urban Mechanics, the options have multiplied. You can pick up the phone and call the mayor’s office. But you can also do a web chat, use the City Hall website, tweet at CitizensConnect or NotifyBoston, text the city, use the Citizens Connect mobile app, or walk over to City Hall and do it in person.
The Berkman Center researchers found that about 60 percent of people call the Hotline, resulting in about a quarter-million calls per year. Few people text, but a quarter of respondents use the website. Somewhat surprisingly, about 20 percent choose to use the mobile app.
No matter which way they come in, the reports are funneled into CityWorker, a minimalist Android app carried by municipal employees. The worker fills the pothole and lets the app know, which lets the citizen who reported it know. Sometimes the worker even sends a photo.
The system, Crawford and Walters report, isn’t perfect. The city’s backend is still fractured. The Boston Redevelopment Authority uses Salesforce. The division of Public Works that handles street lights uses something from IBM called "Maximo." There’s no way of tying together cases as they flow through the system, and there’s little blending of "hotline" datasets with others. The researchers point to traffic data, inspection records and even sentiment analysis as keys to making the approach more collaborative on the citizen-end, and eventually achieve what many hold out as the holy grail of civic innovation: As the researchers put it, "the co-creation of government services."
It’s this way with a lot with civic innovation. If only, if we could, if citizens would — those sorts of phrases come up again and again when people talk about improving the systems that power government. Civic innovation and its civic tech cousin are in an awkward stage. They’re new enough that rigorous cost-benefit analysis is unduly harsh, but they’ve been around long enough that they should be expected to pull their weight.
"We’re still in the claim-making phase," Jacobs said last spring. "We’re saying things and really hoping that they’re true." Many people have their eyes on cities as the places where civic innovation will work, if it’s allowed to. Cities aren’t tied to the same strict schedules that the federal government. George W. Bush’s presidency came and went while Menino was in office, with several years of padding on either side. Still, we’re getting to the point where it’s put-up time.
As a sub-story in their case study, Crawford and Walters profile the Office of New Urban Mechanics itself, and report that it has the mayor’s firm backing. This has managed to keep it from the fate of so many other technology initiatives, of being something marginalized for the real workings of government, and the real concerns of policymakers. "Even without budgetary authority or staff," the researchers write, the Office of New Urban Mechanics "has been able to nudge, encourage, and facilitate collaborations inside City Hall and across academic institutions, technologists, and other city governments that have been productive."
Jacob recalls what the mayor told him in the early days: "I want you to lead and I want you to cut through any BS that you see and just do things."
It’s not that the 70-year-old Menino is a technologist. "I can’t imagine him doing something on the computer," Boston’s principal data scientist Curt Savoie says in the report. Menino might not get Twitter. What he gets is being a mayor.
What the Office of New Urban Mechanics can be credited with, write Crawford and Walters, is "translating the mayor’s obsessive focus on constituent services and personal touch into an integrated CRM platform that also makes possible varied forms of two way communications with real people while also facilitating the hard-nose tracking of city performance." That’s a task that, will apologies to the authors, is as boring as that sentence. But it’s that sort of drudgery — the moving of mechanics into place so that they might capture the enthusiasm of the people — that is likely going to make possible the hoped-for co-creation of city services.
And it’s a pretty good bet that we’re going to see that happen in Boston before we see it happen in Newark — even if Menino doesn’t know what Twitter is.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.