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Boston hopes data can aid its efforts in fighting fires

The city of Boston is using data and digital technology to improve firefighting and other vital services, according to a report from the Harvard Kennedy School released on Monday.

The 12-page brief from the Rappaport Institute at the Kennedy School is entitled “City Hall’s Data and Technology Journey: Using Data to Improve the Lives of Citizens.” Authored by executive director Steve Poftak, the report tracks “how the City’s efforts have improved firefighting, business permitting, and the flow of traffic,” the institute said in a statement.

On the firefighting front, electronic data from the city’s Inspectional Services Division on building hazards, combined with the Fire Department’s own hazard reports, was recently made available to dispatchers, said Fire Commissioner Joseph Finn.


Poftak wrote in the report that the data project stemmed “from an internal request by the BFD’s own dispatch unit to better understand building hazards. The intent with this program is to take the existing property-specific sources of data in the city and put it into the hands of Dispatch and fire fighters -- so that they can know what known hazards exist in and around a building before entering.”

Eventually, Finn said, the electronic data will be available on fire trucks and on hand-held devices for fire officials who take command at scenes.

The easily accessible electronic data on building hazards will allow for “a much better [safety] outcome when you know what’s going on” with any given structure, said Finn, who also thanked city analysts for helping to cull the information.

The institute report came after recently released federal and city findings on the March 2014 deaths of Boston Fire Lieutenant Edward Walsh and firefighter Michael Kennedy at a Back Bay fire cited building conditions of the engulfed structure as one of the factors in the tragedy.

Other highlights of the institute report include the creation of online databases to allow users to track the status of their permit applications, as well as the implementation of a “data-intensive management strategy” for city permitting officials.

Those improvements are among the factors that have led to a significant reduction time for the issuance of long-form permits and for conducting plan reviews, the report said.


Mayor Martin J. Walsh praised city officials in a statement for their work in marshaling data sources to help Boston residents.

“We know that using data and technology has to ability to improve the quality of lives of our residents,” Walsh said. “I am proud of the work we have done, and we will continue our focus on bettering city services through new and innovative approaches.”

Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city’s chief information officer, added in a phone interview that “these projects are all about collaboration” among the data analytic team and municipal departments.

“It really is about trying to use information and analytics to ultimately improve the quality of life in Boston by building data tools,” he said.

The city has succeeded mightily in that endeavor, according to a statement from Jeffrey Liebman, director of the Rappaport Institute.

“Over the past several years the City of Boston has emerged as a national leader in creatively using technology to improve public services,” Liebman said. “The key to Boston’s success has been the way in which the mayor’s office and city departments have worked together. There has been strong mayoral leadership pushing these initiatives, but also a proper amount of deference to departmental expertise.”

Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.