Snowstorm, traffic, Waze partnership dominate Mayor Walsh’s data-themed meeting

Mayor Walsh has one Cabinet meeting a month focus on the city'd data projects. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Boston Globe file)
Mayor Walsh has one Cabinet meeting a month focus on the city'd data projects. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Boston Globe file)

Friday morning on City Hall Plaza, a team from the navigation and traffic avoidance app Waze, which recently announced partnership with the City of Boston, was handing out free Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and hot cocoa in an effort to recruit more users. Consider it an even exchange: Dunks for data.

Data was also a theme inside City Hall this morning, as Mayor Martin J. Walsh opened up his monthly data-focused Cabinet meeting to reporters, and shared the latest info on traffic patterns, snow removal services, and other metrics that they city has been tracking — and promoting — since the Mayor first took office.

“It’s a mindset,” the mayor said as he described the emphasis his administration is putting on numbers. “When we started we had some cabinet chiefs that had never done this before,” he said, but said he has found that many of his new chiefs have embraced the data-centric efforts, to the point where he has been hosting separate Cabinet meeting that focuses on data exclusively for the last six months.

“The culture change that has been brought on that the expectations that this data is going to be reviewed is huge,” said Daniel Koh, the mayor’s chief of staff. “People now know that the mayor is seeing this data in real time.”

Among the many data points discussed this morning were stats on service requests and responses. In 2014, 55 percent of constituents reaching out to the mayor’s office did so through the Hotline, 28 percent used the Citizens Connect app, and 17 percent used the site. Across the city, the number of service requests that were completed in accordance with the service level agreement — a target window of time that the city sets for itself to fulfill a request — hovered over their their 80 percent goal.

The series of snowstorms has undoubtedly stressed out city services, and the number of recent requests reflect that. Since the start of this year, the city has received over 70,145 calls, 60 percent of which were snow related. In comparison with the same time period last year, the number of calls was only 24,381. What was clear to Cabinet members, however, was that the systems currently in place for reporting issues — snow removal requests for example — don’t actually align with the requests themselves. A caller asking for snow removal service may want the pathway on their street to be widened, yet the call would come up as a request for a plow.

“We’re looking to better capture distinctions you get in the data,” said chief information officer Jascha Franklin-Hodge. “We’re looking to lower the amount of noise we’re getting in requests.”

The mayor’s office also shared some preliminary data that they’ve gleaned from their new partnership with Waze. From January throught February, they tracked the average speed of vehicles on Washington Street, and compared those numbers to the inches of snowfall that fell throughout the month. In nearly every case, speed levels decreased in the wake of the storms, with the exception of around Feb. 14 and 15, when snowfall and speed both spiked.


Both Walsh and Koh noticed the spike, asking the room for thoughts. “It was Valentine’s Day,” Felix Arroyo, the chief of Health and Human Services said with a laugh, “everyone was rushing home to get to their spouses.” Others posited it was because the mayor told people to get off the roads that evening. And the mayor’s team that gathered the information acknowledging that this particular Waze data set didn’t actually measure the number of cars on the road, just their speed.

Franklin-Hodge said the Waze partnership is one example of how having a real time data set can let the city take a startup-like approach to providing services. They can track the impact of instituting a policy that limits the number of cars double parked on Commonwealth Avenue, for example, and see how it effects traffic flow.

“If we have a question like that,” he said, “instead of doing some massive long term expensive traffic study, we can actually run a test and we have this real time data source that lets us measure the impact of that test, and quickly decide is this something we want to scale up, is this something that doesn’t work, or does this point us in a better direction for how to manage traffic?”

With some 440,000 users in greater Boston using the Waze app, both Walsh and Franklin-Hodge said those users are providing the city with enough information for them to have a reliable data set. But one can assume they’re hoping that  a few cups of free coffee this morning might recruit more users — and their data — into their overall effort.

Data/image via City of Boston

Janelle Nanos can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.
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