How Boston is using data and technology to improve the lives of low-income residents

Photo: Navaneeth KN
Photo: Navaneeth KN

As part of the new Civic Tech and Data Collaborative sponsored by Living Cities, Code for America and Urban Institute’s National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, civic technology teams in Boston and St. Louis were awarded $200,000 each to leverage data and technology to improve the lives of low-income residents.

Metropolitan Area Planning Council Director of Data Services Holly St. Clair shares how Boston is working to make this happen.

What issues will you address during the collaborative period?

At the moment, City of Boston youth employment staff spend thousands of hours manually assigning students to jobs, following up with students, and arranging interviews.  They are challenged to keep up with the work required for the roughly 8,000 annual applicants.

Our ultimate goal is to increase the number of local youth applying for and getting placed in summer jobs through the City of Boston youth program. Mayor Walsh wants the summer youth employment program to hire 10,000 youth each summer, a goal that all of the partners on this project share.

We think that, by automating the most time-consuming parts of the application and placement process, we can create time for outreach and marketing to help get the annual applicant number up to 10,000 and beyond.

Throughout this project, we also plan to pilot new, more effective ways for government to produce software. Government typically procures software from consulting firms, who develop the software using expensive and often time-consuming business processes.

We think that other methodologies — specifically in-agency or collaboration of multiple agencies, and agile development with a focus on user-centered design processes — can dramatically improve the quality of digital government services at the same time as they build the capacity of government to maintain their own software for less cost.

Why was this an important project to tackle?

Boston’s Youth Jobs program is a successful initiative that is improving the lives of Boston’s young people by connecting them to meaningful summer employment. Participants in the program earn a paycheck and develop skills necessary to obtain and maintain jobs, and develop future career goals.

Getting youth on a meaningful career path is one way to start addressing some of the persistent economic inequalities our region. At the same time, as recent studies have shown, summer jobs programs reduce youth violence.

What will be the process and timeline?

The City, MAPC, Code For Boston and the Boston Indicators project will work with a group of youth and Code for Boston fellows this fall to develop a prototype for next spring’s application process. We will use a human centered design approach, which uses iterative design based on user input.

We look to refine that prototype based on feedback from the youth over the summer of 2016, and will start to tackle the internal process that matches youth to employers. We expect the collaboration to wrap up in 2017.

What technology do you plan to use?

We have not yet decided on a technology stack, because we consider it too early in the process to do so. As the designers, developers, City of Boston youth employment staff, and students go through the design process, we will develop a catalog of the features we need.

The feature list will determine the technical requirements, which in turn will determine the technology needed. While we do not have a particular technology stack in mind at this time, we plan to use open-source frameworks to build the web-based components of the system in a way that is sustainable, scalable, and maintainable by government agencies with small in-house software developers.

How do you plan to share what you’ve learned and built for other cities to re-purpose?

Throughout the life of the project, our code will be entirely open-source.

While all personal data will be kept highly secure, the code that runs the site will be open to anyone so that other cities can both use our code, and contribute back improvements to it as well. We intend to not only share the code openly, but we also plan to build it so it is easily reused by other cities.

Many open-source software projects require a significant amount of effort to get running, but we want to reduce that necessary effort as much as possible. But, while we plan to keep other cities’ needs in mind, our primary goal is to make Boston’s work easier.

The partners belong to a variety of networks that will serve as conduits for lessons learned and products. Code for Boston is connected to brigades in other cities through Code for America, which facilitates the exchange of ideas and code. The Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) is a regional agency that works with 101 municipalities throughout the Boston region and facilitates the exchange of best practices between municipalities and other regional entities on a daily basis. Both MAPC and the Boston Indicators project belong to the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership (NNIP) a collaboration of the Urban Institute and local partners in more than 30 cities who work to further the development and use of neighborhood-level information systems for community building and local decision-making.

We look forward to learning how this process will help match youth with employers and enhance the program over time, and to passing on what we have learned to other cities.

Learn more about the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative.

About Luke Fretwell

Luke Fretwell is the founder of GovFresh. He is also co-founder and CEO of ProudCity. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn or email at luke@govfresh.com.

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