When it comes to the nebulous term “big data,” U.S. cities are finally leaning in.
Though aggregating data and statistics seems to be a fool-proof trick to understanding the source of, and resolving urban problems like crime, traffic, pollution, and things of the like, city leaders have been slow to plug in.
“There was a time — the past 20 years, actually — when two large computer monitors in the mayor’s office would have been as welcome as a Walmart executive pitching a store in Boston,” Michael B. Farrell wrote for the Boston Globe last week. “Longtime occupant Thomas M. Menino famously shunned e-mail and didn’t even allow a PC to clutter his desk.”
How can a mayor get a full picture of his or her jurisdiction without even an e-mail address? Exactly. That’s not to say that Boston’s leadership has been completely in the dark, though. For years, Boston and other cities have been pored over crime, traffic, and potholes statistics to find areas for improvement. This kind of big data has been useful for enacting new laws and determining their effectiveness.
But Martin J. Walsh, Boston’s new mayor as of January 6, has embraced big data head on and brought it right onto his desktop. He has two 46-inch screens — called dashboards — that sit atop a metal stand, which display data about all things Boston — from the percentage of school buses arriving on schedule to how many potholes were filled in the past week to the number of calls flooding the city’s 24-hour hot line.
This way, he gets real-time reports from his city’s departments.“It’s really a way to have the department heads push to deliver better services to the city of Boston,” Walsh told the Globe. Watching his social media streams and hotline activity allows him to witness what issues need addressing right away and to see what’s working.
The dashboards originated with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, who pushed his staff to use computers to discover previously overlooked issues and find solutions to ones that had long proved frustrating. The Globe found an instance in which this was particularly useful:

In one case, New York officials analyzed building data to determine which were more susceptible to fires, and then dispatched inspectors to those properties. Boston has undertaken similar efforts to target negligent landlords and to cut down on traffic congestion.

With Walsh’s term still in its infancy, his big data push will take time to truly manifest itself. But he has huge software and technological improvements to thank for enabling his mission. In a way, the true potential of big data couldn’t have been accessed during Menino’s long term, anyway. But today’s smartphones, powerful computers, and evermore effective data platforms make it easier to track trends. Even more exciting is the possibility of predictive data services, which may able to detect crimes before they happen.
Until then, Boston, along with other cities, as Government Technology outlines, may help lead the way in hacking into city problems — and how to fix them, stat.