To be in Boston on Thursday, October 30th was to be in mourning for the Mayor who led the City on the Hill for two decades, Thomas Menino. As Boston’s citizens paid tribute to the man nicknamed the “urban mechanic” for his attention to the minutiae of city life, many cited ways in which the late Mr. Menino had used technology to make large-scale changes aimed at improving government efficiency, even when he himself was often the least tech-savvy person in the room.
One of Mr. Menino’s greatest achievements on the civic technology front is the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. This first-of-its-kind office (which regularly works with the Cyberlaw Clinic) began in 2009 with the goal of creating more ways for citizens to report problems in their neighborhoods – the kinds of problems the former Mayor used to call in himself on his way to work. Part of this effort included the introduction of Citizens Connect, a smartphone application designed by the Office of New Urban Mechanics that allows constituents to submit problems replete with locations and photos. Once these issues are reported via phone, app, Tweet, web-chat, or one of several other methods, each case is fed into a central management system that connects it with the proper department. On the other end is Boston’s app for city workers, which allows them to receive these cases and report on their progress in real-time.
As Harvard Law School Visiting Professor Susan Crawford noted in a case study of the Office of New Urban Mechanics, “[Mayor Menino’s commitment] to personalized constituent service […], his long tenure, and the particular personalities of the people on the New Urban Mechanics team make this both a cultural story as well as a technology story.” Mr. Menino filled the Office with technologists and allowed them to think about problems traditional municipal departments have long faced through the lens of data and civic innovation.
One often-touted and somewhat whimsical solution to a persistent urban problem was the office’s Street Bump app, which “collects data about the smoothness of the ride” as participants drive around Boston, aggregating it to find potholes and uneven roads. Additionally, the office has sought to use technology as the catalyst for increased citizen engagement with the communities in which they live, inviting them to take ownership of neighborhood fire hydrants and to share stories about the personal significance of local landmarks.
For many of these initiatives, it is still too soon to measure their impact. What can be said is that Mayor Menino’s willingness to experiment with the typically staid processes of city bureaucracy shows a leader who saw the value in testing new ideas. To many, civic technology is a key component of Mayor Menino’s legacy, one that his successors will hopefully continue to embrace.
Photo (cc) by Eric Haynes/Office of Gov. Deval Patrick and published under a Creative Commons license.