For These Urban Mechanics, City Hall Is a Place to Experiment

What started as Boston’s effort to dedicate a city agency to civic innovation has become an increasingly common sight in local government.

City Hall to Go. Credit: Isabel Leon/City of Boston

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Boston’s City Hall to Go, a roving hub for city services, is generating a lot of buzz in the civic technology community. But when I visited the real brick-and-mortar City Hall in mid-January, the new ride was in the shop.

“It’s the generator,” explained Chris Osgood, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, a Boston city agency specifically focused on civic innovation.

Fellow co-chair Nigel Jacob, who was about to explain where the idea for a mobile van that allows citizens to do things like register to vote came from, barely broke stride.

His point was that stuffing a pile of city services into a conspicuous red-and-blue van might have seemed pretty far-fetched, even frivolous, to most of City Hall’s rank and file. But for New Urban Mechanics, it’s just another part of a plan to change the way city government and citizens interact.

And a hiccup like the mini-City Hall needing to visit an actual mechanic? Par for the course.

Jacob and Osgood don’t see themselves as average City Hall employees. City Hall To Go, functional or not, represents why.

Jacob and Osgood founded New Urban Mechanics a few years ago, with support from Mayor Thomas Menino, because they wanted to create a space to do something city governments don’t typically do: experiment. Using their network and roughly $10,000 seed grants, usually from foundations, Jacob and Osgood shepherd innovators from inside and outside government to pilot unusual, potentially risky urban planning ideas and, possibly, scale them to the rest of the city and beyond.

“We often say that part of the real goal of New Urban Mechanics is culture change to create this culture of innovation,” said Jacob. “We believe that we can do that by enabling.”

They describe their role in fomenting civic innovation in all kinds of corporate newspeak-y ways: Risk aggregators, experiment funders, network facilitators, project managers, “marriage” brokers and, yes, culture shifters. Often this type of work involves technology — like Citizens Connect and Street Bump, two mobile apps they’ve had a hand in — but it doesn’t have to.

Focusing on civic innovation, broadly speaking, isn’t unique to Boston. New York and Philadelphia both have multiple government offices dedicated to the somewhat nebulous concept, but their visions are quite different.

Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City has pushed one of the most progressive open data policies in the country. The city also appointed its first-ever chief digital officer, Rachel Haot, two years ago to lead the foray into digital civic engagement through social media and hackathons. In some ways, Haot and her team at NYC Digital represent an analogue to Boston’s New Urban Mechanics.

Citizens Connect, a mobile app for Bostonians to report streetscape problems.

It’s an imperfect comparison, though, because Andrew Nicklin, director of research and development in New York’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT), is also responsible for civic innovation in the city. For he and Haot — they often team up — the objective is to focus on what’s measureable: Transparency, accountability and efficiency.

“We are very focused on technology innovation and not necessarily on innovation in general,” Nicklin said. “The notion of what Boston and Philadelphia are doing with their offices of New Urban Mechanics serving as a risk aggregator is not something we’ve quite tackled yet.”

Haot said that customer service forms the core of New York’s approach, pointing to civic hackathons — to which she credits the development of more than 150 civic apps — as critical to how the city finds new ways to use data to deliver services.

“The way we measure engagement here is, we want to be engaging with every single New Yorker who is online,” Haot said. “And we want to do it in a way that is comfortable to them and is on their terms.”

One could reasonably characterize Philadelphia as a hybrid between its two more polished brethren. Philly adopted the New Urban Mechanics model late last year, but co-chair Jeff Friedman said it’s more focused on supporting civic entrepreneurs (as opposed to “civic innovators”) trying to build viable businesses that address urban problems, not unlike New York.

“We’re trying to connect people with challenges with folks on the outside who have solutions and figure out what kind of public-private partnerships can be created around solving those challenges,” Friedman said. “It’s employing lean start-up concepts in the civic space.”

Oddly, Philadelphia already had a civic innovation team, led by Adel Ebeid, that focused on open data, city service applications and digital inclusion.

Andrew Buss, who leads the digital inclusion piece, is the first to point out that the office may be innovative, but it’s not trying to be experimental.

“Within government there is always risk because we are seen as potentially squandering money, so it’s difficult for us to do anything that’s kind of like R&D,” Buss said. “Within innovation we’ve tried to find things that are still innovative, but seem to work. It’s innovative because of the way you do it, not because you just came up with an idea and put $100,000 towards it.”

But Chief Data Officer Mark Headd does have a somewhat experimental vision for open data, though it doesn’t necessarily follow the New Urban Mechanics model. He sees the city as the steward of an open data platform on which civic-minded developers and entrepreneurs can build public-facing applications that help citizens consume city services. It’s similar to how applets like HootSuite are designed to enhance the way you use Twitter.

“I think very much that this notion of co-production of services and co-delivery of information is the future,” Headd said.

Here’s the contrast. Where New York and Philly are hoping to harness civic-minded software developers to help cities do more of what they already do and faster, Boston is hoping so-called civic innovators will take it a step further, by dreaming up and testing brand new services altogether.

For example, Jacob and Osgood helped Boston Public Schools pilot and scale the Boston One Card, a multi-purpose ID card for high school students that can be used to access public transit, libraries and other services.

They’ve also partnered with Emerson College associate professor Eric Gordon and the Engagement Game Lab to pilot a community planning game in two Boston neighborhoods that uses game dynamics to improve citizen participation in the notoriously dreaded town hall meeting.

Community PlanIt engages citizens through an online game. Credit: Community PlanIt

“The fact that we still walk into communities and use a 400-year-old technique to dialogue, that’s a problem with our democracy,” Jacob said. “The hope is that we can see this cultural impact on government and we can begin to see government changing the way it thinks about all these different pieces.”

The game platform, now called Community PlanIt, is being deployed in Philadelphia through a partnership the pair brokered between the City Planning Commission and Gordon’s lab. For the commission, it was a new and relatively untested way to solicit feedback and ideas for the Philadelphia2035 district plan for University/Southwest Philadelphia. The results of the game are still being analyzed.

Friedman said Philadelphia’s New Urban Mechanics has functioned as a project manager. And even though Headd is proposing a new conception of city government, the risks are fundamentally about whether it’s both possible and beneficial to relinquish some of the city’s responsibility for service delivery. It’s not about testing whether experimental pilot projects, like Community PlanIt, can scale and be replicated in other cities.

To be fair, finding new ways to deliver city services through third-party applications is innovative in the face of a budget crunch.

It has inspired promising projects like Lehman College’s Community Connect, which uses GIS to help students and Bronx residents understand community-relevant data, and PlanPhilly’s License to Inspect data visualization, which allows citizens to easily search data from the Department of Licensing and Inspections.

In theory, it’s a bit like the difference between inventing a more energy-efficient light bulb and harnessing nuclear fusion for energy.

Granted, City Hall To Go might be handy (when it’s running), but it’s far from nuclear fusion. After all, trucks have long been used for all kinds of public health services, like AIDS testing.

What’s key is that no matter how compelling Boston’s goals are, we aren’t yet totally sure what works — particularly when you think of solving urban challenges on the time scale of a city, not a start-up.

For example, it’s widely assumed that demanding data disclosure from city agencies empowers citizens to make better decisions in their daily lives. But a recent article in the Yale Law Journal found that public-facing grading systems for restaurant health inspection data in San Diego and New York City had little impact on incidence of foodborne illnesses.

And it’s far from a given that housing an R&D lab within government can lead to a civic culture shift.

“What is at stake here is an understanding of what it is that we’re actually accomplishing by integrating technology into civic life,” said Gordon, who, in addition to Community PlanIT, also leads qualitative research on how city officials think about civic innovation.

He said the need for research in this space is immense.

In the meantime, perhaps cities should be pushed to distinguish between the transformational and the expedient when it comes to dubbing something “civic innovation.” Better clarity could serve as a starting point for average city dwellers to imagine the possibilities for their cities.

That’s particularly important since none of these efforts work if citizens don’t want them, no matter what city you’re in.

“How do you get 620,000 people in this city to feel like they can shift the city the way the mayor can shift the city?” Osgood asked. “That is the aspiration and right now, it is transactional. But we start with potholes and move towards policy and figure out how to shift the city that way.”

Full Disclosure: I’m a student in a class that is partnering with the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, though I’m not involved with the specific project.

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Tags: philadelphiaurban planningbostoncivic techthomas menino

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