City Council Seeks to Bring Cambridge Into the 21st Century

City Council Seeks to Bring Cambridge Into the 21st Century

  • Posted on: 27 February 2011
  • By: stannenb

The City Council has two orders on its Monday agenda aimed at bringing the City into the 21st century. But the Council should be careful. It may get exactly what it's asking for and no more than that.

Two orders, on the City Council agenda for Monday, February 28th, seek to bring Cambridge into the 21st century.

The first, from Councilor Leland Cheung, would order:

That the City Manager is hereby requested to confer with the Budget Department and direct the appropriate department heads to create a program in Cambridge similar to the Boston's Department of Urban Mechanics [sic] which will develop and implement new ideas that improve City service delivery and report back to the City Council with a funding and human resource plan to implement such a program.

The second, from Councilor Cheung and Councilor Marjorie Decker would order:

That as part of the upcoming budget process, the City Manager is requested to create a capital budget for the development of internet and mobile-based tools and set aside funds for the personnel necessary to enact such development.

The Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics describes itself as Boston's Research and Development arm, charged with innovation focused on delivering "transformative" City services. Cambridge, as a wealthy City, can afford to invest in innovation. Indeed, the case can be made that innovating in City service delivery is a requirement to maintain its competitive advantage in attracting innovative industries.

(In a blog posting this evening, Councilor Cheung notes that the Urban Mechanics order was meant to be a modification of the other order.)

The problem comes with the second order, directing the Manager to create a budget for the development of internet and mobile tools. The order suggests the following uses:

Cambridge residents could benefit from a multitude of such tools, including but not limited to:

  • Internet based tools to pay all fees and charges via the web or smartphone, and
  • Infrastructure enabling residents to scan QR codes posted on the back of city signage to learn more,
  • Tools to take pictures of problems around the city, transfer that data to the appropriate department in the city, and track the status of any resolution all from their phone, and
  • Infrastructure enabling residents to watch both City Council meetings and committee hearings from web-enabled devices such as iPads, and etc;

There's much that is good about the order. That it orders the Manager to create a budget as part of the current budget cycle creates a certain urgency. It speaks of both capital costs and staffing costs. The suggested uses, albeit a bit scattered, are all perfectly valid goals.

But it is a mistake to implement technology on top of broken business processes. And Cambridge is rife with broken process. In Cambridge, if you see a rat in some trash on an unshoveled sidewalk, there's one number to call for the rat, another for the trash, and the third for snow. For there to be an effective technology implementation, the underlying constituent services problems need to be addressed.

There are also some fundamental principals that should be observed.

Within the limits of technology, equivalent services should be available via the plain old telephone, the web and smartphones. You can't send a picture via a landline, but calling about a problem from a landline should result in the same issue tracking as it would from a smartphone. Assistive technologies should be employed, as well.

The solutions should be open. Data generated should be available via the Web. The interfaces (the APIs) used to implement the systems should use the emerging standards for municipal services. With open data and open APIs, the power of entrepreneurial innovation is unleashed. No better local example can be found than the MBTA's effort to provide real time bus arrival information. The MBTA provided the data - data it was already using internally for fleet management purposes - and documented the interfaces to retrieve the data. The results are over 35 applications that cost the MBTA nothing to develop. Some of them are free for users, some require a purchase. This model may not be right for Cambridge, but that's the point. It's only through exploration that the right model, the one that best meets the needs of the City and citizens in the long run, can be discovered. And its only through a commitment to openness that one provides a platform for such exploration.

Lastly, the order establishes no timeline for implementation. To a certain degree, the speed at which this can happen is a function of the resources provided. Thus, the Manager is free to respond to this in a range of ways, say, hiring a part time person leading to years before the goals are met, or by hiring a large staff for a much quick implementation. The Council should set a time limit by which time they want the critical parts implemented and let the Manager return with a budget and a plan to meet those goals.

This order, and the changes it will bring, are great steps for Cambridge. But the Council needs to be clear about its objectives, establish core principals on which to build, and set a timeframe to ensure that city staff deliver what is asked for. Without these elements, the City may get a web site and a mobile phone application, but it won't transform the way the City delivers services.


Didn't they pass something a year or so back to investigate Somerville's 311 system which apparently does all of this tracking and transparency stuff? I've heard good things about 311 from some Villens, but haven't used it.

Great points - I think 311 would help address what you point out. As Mark noted, we did pass something a year ago on 311. I can't tell you how much work behind the scenes I've done on 311 ... including taking the Manager to visit Somerville's 311. I've been meeting with the Manager almost every week for the past year just to pester him about 311. The good news is he finally agreed to relent to my dogged persistence and start the ball rolling on implementing a system. No promises yet, but it finally looks to be moving in the right direction.

From my perspective, I know that no matter what the wording, the Order is just an authorizing document. The real work comes afterwards in working with the Manager and in keeping on top of follow up. If anything like this is going to happen, the details are going to be negotiated with the Manager as part of the budget process. I intentionally tried to keep the order general in recognition of that, but give some specifics for direction and outline the request for approval by the Council.

Finally, yes what the MBTA is incredible. I know the guys that spearheaded that initiative (and didn't I see you there at on of the events at MS NERD?). What they did in opening data is the model I have in my head whenever I think about what's possible for local government.



A 311-like service should be at the core of this transformation. I avoided saying "311" only because the last time I said "311", the conversation got diverted by city staff talking about the difficulties of using that specific phone number for the service on mobile phones as Somerville has already taken that number. In the context of openness, there is an effort called Open 311 ( designed to make the APIs for all 311 services interoperable.

I appreciate all the work behind the scenes you've been doing for 311, but I think that argues for a time-bounding this request. And, lastly, I think it's important, in the authorizing document, to put a stake in the ground for openness. It should be at the bedrock of this initiative, and, because there will be countervailing forces, it should established as Council-blessed policy.

- Saul