Mounted on the wall of Boston Mayor Martin Walsh’s office is a massive flat screen TV. Walsh, one presumes, doesn’t fritter away his days watching soap operas in HD; instead, he spends his time scrutinizing the ever-changing bits of data flashing across the display. The information on his monitor, constantly updating in real time, includes everything from stabbing reports to untended potholes to scheduled tree maintenance around the city.
The image evokes something out of The Matrix, but Walsh’s dashboard does a lot more than spew an incomprehensible drizzle of green code. Thanks to the inventiveness of his tech-minded chief of staff, the Mayor need home in on just one number to assess Boston’s well-being on any given day. That number is the CityScore, and it represents the distillation of two dozen distinct metrics into a single figure. A CityScore greater than 1 tells Walsh that, on the whole, the City is exceeding expectations. A score below 1 means there’s slack to pick up.
Boston launched CityScore in late 2015 amid a burgeoning big city push to exploit technology and enormous troves of municipal data for a more quantitative and responsive approach to government. Even the White House got in on the act last year with a $160 million multi-agency “Smart Cities” initiative focused on deploying data science to help “local communities tackle key challenges” such as public safety, health, transit and sustainability.
Philadelphia is primed for an endeavor like CityScore. With the launch (and re-launch) of OpenDataPhilly.org, former mayor Michael Nutter put his metrics where his mouth was, taking a big stride toward fulfilling the promise of his 2012 Executive Order mandating “a high level of openness and transparency in government.” For the first time in the city’s long history, Philadelphia facilitated its own citizens’ ability to peek at and interact with the numbers that shape life in the city, and which had previously been obscured behind a veil of bureaucracy.
Even if Open Data Philly hasn’t spilled sunlight on every shadowy nook in City Hall, its 300 data sets, applications and APIs have been widely hailed by geeks and wonks alike as a robust resource for promoting insight and engagement with our municipal guts. The positive reception to Open Data Philly confirms that the city’s government and its citizenry have both the appetite and the aptitude to do even more with data and technology. This inclination extends even to Philadelphia’s institutional citizens; Drexel and Penn are members of the MetroLab Network, an endeavor launched under the Smart Cities program to facilitate active problem-solving partnerships between universities and their home towns.
In Boston, navigation appmaker Waze is sharing its algorithms to improve traffic flow around Beantown’s labyrinthian roadways. It’s no stretch to envision Philadelphia seeking similar cooperation from Uber or Lyft as consideration for ensuring their legal operation within city limits.
“There’s always been an interest in interaction and collaboration,” says Charles Haas, PhD, LD Betz Professor of Environmental Engineering in Drexel’s College of Engineering and head of its Department of Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering. Drexel has collaborated with city agencies for nearly 40 years, supplying technical expertise and resources in support of Water and Streets Department efforts around the city. “Universities have the capacity to help a city work smarter, and one of our greatest assets is our eager students.”
The potential for greater municipal tech support doesn’t end with academics descending from their ivory towers into the town square below; the for-profit private sector has much to offer city governments as well. In Boston, for example, navigation appmaker Waze is sharing its algorithms to improve traffic flow around Beantown’s labyrinthian roadways. It’s no stretch to envision Philadelphia seeking similar cooperation from data-centric ridesharing apps like Uber or Lyft as consideration for ensuring their legal operation within city limits.
In the wink-and-a-handshake world of city politics, making an effective shift to a data-driven government demands a cultural rehabilitation as much as it does a technical education and savvy negotiations with the private sector. A thoroughly empirical policy approach means jettisoning the kind of wheel greasing and horse trading that have been the coin of the realm in too many American cities—not least among them Philadelphia—for far too long. When ones and zeros, as opposed to old debts and loyalties, dictate who gets access to the public trough, resentment from certain quarters is sure to follow.
Still, there’s reason to hope that Philadelphia will embrace a metrics-based mindset in government. Mayor Kenney’s recently-released report on his first 100 days as mayor not only touts the addition of new data sets to Open Data Philly (including, notably, the salaries of all city employees), but includes a progress update on “Creating a More Efficient & Effective Government.”
Whether these efforts indicate a serious commitment to data-driven government or merely lip service, however, is an open question. A perceptive piece by Malcolm Burnley at PhillyMag raises some disturbing red flags about whether the mayor intends to build on Nutter’s data-oriented successes. (Neither the Mayor’s Office nor Philadelphia’s Chief Data Officer responded to emailed requests for comment for this article.) There’s no doubt that when it comes to the day-by-day quality and effectiveness of government, Philadelphia has the capacity to know the score. The only question is whether we’ll keep it.