The city of Boston is working with outside agencies, private businesses, and area universities to use data to improve quality of life for residents.
WRITTEN BY Mary Grauerholz | Photographed By Calvin Hennick

Boston’s “smart” work is centered on ways to improve the city in the years to come. Eric Gordon is the founding
director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. Photo: Joel Laino.

In 2007, Eric Gordon, the founding director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston, partnered with another professor from MIT, William Mitchell, to speak to the Boston Globe about what the city might look like in 10 years.


The resulting article, titled “See the Future,” contained more hits than misses. Although commuters don’t use swipe cards to check out stackable rental cars, they can, in fact, use their smartphones to track public transit vehicles, look up nearby restaurants, and check into physical locations that their friends can follow on social media.


Today, Gordon is hesitant to give an encore fortune-telling performance. “I think I’m older and wiser now,” he jokes. But, Gordon says, one need not be a futurist to see that data-driven solutions are becoming more and more prominent.


Top: Kari Hewitt is the director of sustainability for the professional services firm VHB. Bottom: Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics.

“The data of the physical objects and the places around us will be accessible to us in a more ready fashion,” Gordon says. “Every object, every person, the movements of objects and people—all of that leaves a data trace. What I am most interested in, what I think is a positive development, is the ability to track environmental conditions within cities, the ability to look at water levels and air quality, and what that can mean for everyday decision making. I think that stuff is extraordinary, and I think we’re going to see that more and more, especially as Boston deals with needing to adapt to climate change.”


Over the past several years, the IT and government sectors have buzzed about “smart cities”—a term used to describe municipalities that draw on data-intensive solutions (with the help of sensors, mobile apps, and other IT tools) to improve operations and better serve their citizens. In Boston, city departments are partnering with outside organizations to incorporate data into public life—and especially into public planning—like never before.


Already, the city’s BOS:311 mobile app allows residents and visitors to report nonemergency issues like potholes and graffiti. With the ParkBoston app, motorists can skip fishing for quarters, and instead pay for parking with their smartphones and receive alerts when their meters are about to expire. Other city apps allow Bostonians to “adopt” a fire hydrant to shovel out in the winter, to track their children’s school buses, and even to better plan for trash pickup.


Much of Boston’s “smart” work, however, is centered on ways to improve the city in the years to come. Officials are gathering data—and brainstorming new ways to gather more in the future—to inform plans that they hope will prepare the city to cope with climate change, deliver utilities more efficiently, and transform the city’s streets to make them safer and less congested.


Nigel Jacob, co-founder of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, says that city officials are interested in data-powered solutions not for the sake of whiz-bang mobile apps that dazzle journalists and tech bloggers, but for the tangible impact those solutions can have on residents’ lives. New Urban Mechanics bills itself as a “civic innovation incubator and research and development lab” within City Hall, and yet Jacob eschews the language of “smart cities,” instead preferring to discuss specific solutions and the ways that people interact with them.


“A lot of the products that are built with that [smart cities] concept in mind are about efficiency only,” Jacob says. “It’s ‘faster, better, cheaper,’ which obviously is not a bad thing. But they don’t really have anything to say about humans or human behavior.”


“It suggests to me that those technologies are separate from the rest of the city,” Jacob adds. “That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. We would rather lead with an urban agenda that is enhanced through technology. That’s how we’re thinking about the future of Boston.”


Freedom to Fail

Kari Hewitt, director of sustainability for the professional services firm VHB, says that, even if local officials shy away from the phrase “smart cities,” Boston is a leader in the area, due to its people-centered approach, its willingness to experiment, and its partnerships with outside organizations.


“They’re one of a growing number of cities that have an open data platform,” Hewitt says. “One of the things I appreciate about the way that Nigel and others are approaching this is, they’re not just in the game of adopting new technologies for the sake of new technologies. It’s not about making a big splash. They want ideas that are going to better help them serve the needs of the community.”


“The existence of New Urban Mechanics is particularly innovative for the city,” Hewitt adds. “Their whole purpose is to test new things to improve the city, to be okay with failures, and to work with other departments to leverage the things that are working well.”


Indeed, Jacob sees failure as central to his office’s mission. “In local government, failure is generally not much of an option, but that’s largely because there has been no way of managing risk,” he says. “If someone wants to do something new, they’re often afraid of what will happen if it doesn’t work. So if you’re a mid-level manager, and you have a new idea for something, you may not want your department or your budget attached to it, because if it fails, you’ll get an ugly phone call from the press. We see that as very much our job.”


Austin Blackmon, Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, oversees policy and programs on energy, climate change, sustainability, building safety, historic preservation and open space, including Climate Ready Boston and Greenovate Boston, the city’s community outreach initiative on sustainability. Photo: Joel Laino

Austin Blackmon, Chief of Environment, Energy and Open Space for the City of Boston, oversees policy and programs on energy, climate change, sustainability, building safety, historic preservation and open space, including Climate Ready Boston and Greenovate Boston, the city’s community outreach initiative on sustainability. Photo: Joel Laino

This attitude has resulted in a spirit of playfulness and experimentation in city initiatives. For example, a public art project called Pulse of the City placed five solar-powered, heart-shaped devices around Boston—each equipped with handles that measured participants’ heartbeats and then played music in sync with their pulse—as a fun way to start conversations about public health. The Boston’s Safest Driver competition used a smartphone app to track safety metrics, which resulted in a 47 percent reduction in phone use while driving and a 35 percent reduction in speeding for the top quartile of users. The city has also explored dynamic pricing for parking, an app that collects data on street bumps, side guards on public works vehicles to reduce risks for cyclists, and solar-powered park benches that charge mobile devices and collect environmental data.


Climate Readiness

Being “smart” is more than running data through mobile apps that give users real-time information. It also involves planning for the future. With its “Climate Ready Boston” report, released in December 2016, the city has compiled and analyzed all of the best available data on the likely impacts of climate change, and created a 300-page document that lays out the city’s vulnerabilities and how to address them.


“Through this process, we identified $80 billion in assets that will be in the FEMA floodplain by the end of the century,” says Austin Blackmon, chief of environment, energy, and open space for Boston. “If you annualize the risk for the severity of the storms that we could anticipate, by the end of the century the annualized damage would be about $1.4 billion. That’s in today’s dollars, against a budget of $3.1 billion for the entire city. That really puts in perspective the size of the challenge that we’re facing.”


The report breaks down vulnerabilities and potential solutions by neighborhood, going into great detail about specific assets in different parts of the city and how to protect them. In the Charlestown peninsula, for example, near-term impacts are likely limited to a few water-adjacent and low-lying pockets, the report notes. But the report’s writers predict that significant flooding is likely in the neighborhood later in the century.


By the 2050s, the report says, the city will need to address two key locations: North Charlestown, where a flood entry point exists near I-93, and the new Charles River Dam, where future overtopping and flanking is a concern. “We need to start thinking through right now how we’ll protect those different neighborhoods, particularly in some of the neighborhoods that are going to be impacted sooner rather than later,” says Blackmon.


This fall, the city will kick off a data-driven initiative called Carbon Free Boston—an effort to find cost-efficient ways of hitting the city’s goal of being carbon neutral by 2050.


Smart Utilities

In partnership with the Boston Planning & Development Agency, the city is studying how to improve the way public utilities are maintained and delivered. In particular, the organizations are seeking to address two key issues: the stifling of innovation due to the lack of an integrated utility planning framework, and business downtime and inconvenience stemming from repetitive street openings related to utilities.


In a 2016 study, the planning and development group explored the potential for local energy generation, district energy, microgrids, and utility corridors.


Blackmon says that district energy—a system that supplies thermal energy to multiple buildings via underground pipes—could not only reduce the amount of building space dedicated to utility systems, but could also make the city more resilient by decreasing the number of systems that need protecting.


“If you have an area where you have ten buildings, instead of having to make those 10 boilers all resilient in each building, you could have them centrally located, and have one piece of centralized infrastructure and make the investment in making it more resilient,” he says.


“We really used this planning project as a means of getting all the actors involved in this type of process to think comprehensively,” says Travis Sheehan, a senior fellow with the planning and development group. “That was our big win. We found allies in industry that will help us champion these types of resiliency investments. Now, we are interested in partnering with the private sector to understand what the governance and financial vehicles are to actually getting them built.”


Already, Boston—along with Massachusetts as a whole—is a national leader in energy efficiency. In both 2015 and 2017, Boston topped the list of all U.S. cities on the City Energy Efficiency Scorecard published by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.


Penni Conner, senior vice president and chief customer officer at Boston-based Eversource Energy, says the high ranking is partly a result of data-driven programs that help identify potential sources of large energy savings. At the 200 Clarendon skyscraper alone (still known to most Bostonians by its former name, the Hancock Tower), operators reduced the building’s annual energy usage by 3 million kilowatt-hours due to changes stemming from data analysis.
“In the past three years, we’ve saved enough energy [statewide] to equate to [a] 750-megawatt power plant,” says Conner. “It is significant, what we’re doing here. That is driven by industrial and commercial partnerships, and it requires constant innovation.”


The buildings are art and science wrapped in sleek, beautiful architecture.

Streets of the Future

Transportation represents a unique opportunity—and unique challenge—for cities embracing “smart” solutions. On the one hand, private companies (rather than cities) are very likely to produce the technology that will most dramatically transform the ways people move through urban areas in the coming years. But on the other hand, the streets and sidewalks are publicly owned, and cities have a huge role to play in shaping the policies that will determine which solutions will best support both residents and the municipality.


“The reason we need to be active in these areas is that we know there are things that our residents want, and it’s important for us to explore new ways of being able to achieve that,” says Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. “Our role is to allow for experimentation, and to help shape that experimentation toward the things that our residents most want.”


Boston’s work around “smart” transportation solutions includes both aggressive experimentation and deliberate long-term planning. In addition to testing dynamic pricing models, the city is looking to equip traffic signals with sensors and tools that will automatically adjust stoplights according to traffic flows, and has dedicated space for the testing of autonomous vehicles. At the same time, officials are using data to plan out how these emerging tools will be incorporated over the span of decades, as evidenced by the city’s “Go Boston 2030” plan.


Penni Conner is the senior vice president and chief customer officer at Boston-based Eversource Energy.

Penni Conner is the senior vice president and chief customer officer at Boston-based Eversource Energy.

The plan envisions a future in which more people commute via environmentally friendly modes of transportation that would also reduce congestion. Public transit use, according to the plan’s “aspirational” goals, would rise by one third, while bike commuting would quadruple, walking would increase by nearly 50 percent, and solo driving would drop by half. In the plan, the city takes ownership over metrics that previously might have been considered simple, unalterable facts of life—for example, by adopting a goal to shrink commute times by 10 percent.


While autonomous vehicles are widely predicted to have an enormous impact on the way people move through cities in the coming years, the technology also represents a bit of a question mark. Driverless cars have the potential to reduce or even eliminate traffic fatalities and injuries, but they might also encourage sprawl and congestion and displace workers. And, of course, these vehicles pose unknown safety risks until the technology powering them is proven and mature. Boston is proactively addressing these issues by making space in the South Boston Waterfront district available to three autonomous vehicle companies for testing.


“It’s been a great partnership,” says Karl Iagnemma, chief executive officer at nuTonomy, a software company for driverless cars that has been testing its products in Boston. “It’s been very positive. I believe it’s been a two-way street in terms of the benefits. We’ve been able to improve our software, and we’ve shared a lot of valuable information and learning, so [the city] can be thoughtful about how [the technology] should be regulated in the future. I see this as a really nice success story.”


Osgood says that the city is being careful to consider all likely impacts of new technologies, rather than simply jumping to adopt flashy technologies that might benefit wealthy Bostonians at the expense of others. This balance can be more complex than it first appears. While improvements to downtown driving and parking will disproportionately benefit affluent residents and suburbanites, Osgood notes that those improvements may also reduce congestion, which would benefit people who rely on public buses.


“One of the things that we’ve been very interested in is to really understand the impact [changes have] on businesses, on residents, and on people who are looking to go in these areas,” Osgood says. Through rigorous testing, and also through resident surveys and interviews, the city continues to collect the thing that will help it to answer those questions: more data.

A future in which more people commute via environmentally friendly modes of transportation is a major goal.

Smart Cities Across the Country

All across America, cities are using big data analytics to improve safety and quality of life for residents.


New Orleans: The city’s Office of Performance and Accountability looked at Census Bureau data to identify city blocks most likely to contain homes without smoke detectors. The fire department then targeted those areas for its smoke detector distribution program.


Chicago: Using 11 different variables, the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology developed an algorithm to help the city’s three dozen health inspectors prioritize Chicago’s more than 15,000 food establishments. The new system has resulted in a 15 percent increase in the number of critical violations found.


Kansas City: Sensors on streetlights along a 2.2-mile light-rail line gather information about traffic and available street parking. Residents can go online for real-time information about traffic volume and open parking spots.


Louisville, Ky.: Through a public-private partnership, the city provided more than 1,000 sensor-equipped asthma inhalers to residents, helping to gather data on where poor air quality is triggering breathing problems.


Mobile, Ala.: Building code inspectors used Instagram to take photos of blighted buildings and track the properties on a map—allowing them to create an inventory of 1,200 blighted properties in only eight days.


Washington, D.C.: In two areas of the capital, the city plans to deploy sensors that will gather information on waste management practices, with the goal of better tracking and enhancing the waste management process and reducing carbon emissions from unnecessary trash pickups.