City Hall is always above average — if you ask City Hall
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Mayor Martin J. Walsh's administration has weathered a string of controversies in the past eight months. But even on Boston's bad days, City Hall has exceeded expectations with above-average services to residents, according to the city's own digital scorecard.
CityScore is an algorithm created by the Walsh administration designed to distill City Hall's daily performance into one data point. Creators call it a municipal batting average.
The single number — established by city officials — is generated daily and posted online; it summarizes dozens of measures on such things as how quickly city crews fix street lights, respond to fires, and address crime.
Scores below 1, posted in red, reflect inadequate performance. Above 1 means the city is exceeding targets.
Since launching the system in January, City Hall overall has always exceeded expectations; all that varies is by how much. The average score for the city for the most recent quarter was 1.32.
"It's a good thing,'' the mayor said at a round-table discussion Tuesday. "If it is exceeding, then that means the city is doing its jobs. City people are doing their jobs."
Much has been made in the national press about CityScore. But some residents and urban policy specialists have expressed skepticism about CityScore's utility and effectiveness.
Managers in the public works, fire, police, school, and emergency management services departments can easily see the information and make adjustments, city officials said.
"I come in, click refresh, and see a number that looks red and I want to know why,'' said Public Works Commissioner Michael Dennehy. "We want to see that daily number continue to rise."
CityScore is based on on-time responses, crime, and constituent services. It also factors in EMS incidents, public school attendance, and 311 call center performance.
But it doesn't take into account other core services provided by city government, such as services to the poor and homeless, said Michael Ahn, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
"The real question is what else is left out,'' he said.
Boston's initiative to bring big data to the masses — spearheaded by Walsh's chief of staff, Daniel Koh — comes as cities across the country such as Los Angeles and New York are using data to better serve the public. Boston officials paid $325 to have CityScore trademarked, officials said.
"The goal is to stay very connected to not only the individual cases that matter to one person on one street, but also not losing sight of the bigger picture citywide,'' said Jascha Franklin-Hodge, the city's chief information officer.
At the round table Tuesday, the city's analytics team gave its assessment of how CityScore has been working so far. Team members said CityScore is helping the city improve EMS response times, street light repairs, and services at the 311 call center — which have repeatedly fallen in the red.
Since the launch of CityScore in January, officials have created a user-friendly dashboard and metrics definitions, and made the data accessible to the public.
Officials are also aiming to incorporate Cabinet priorities into CityScore, better promote its use throughout city government, and integrate it with other management efforts.
They have also created open source toolkits that allow other cities and organizations to create their own CityScore. Miami, Providence, and South Bend, Ind., have volunteered to test the system, officials said.
Steve Fox, a longtime South End resident who chairs the South End Forum, said he is very familiar with CityScore and credits the city with being extremely responsive to calls neighborhood residents make to the 311 help line. But he said he has concerns that the city doesn't factor in when a case is resolved, instead of when a work crew shows up at a site.
"I like the concept,'' said Fox, who then hesitated: "But I mostly trust the numbers."
Officials said at the round table a case is closed when city crews complete the job.
Daniel O'Brien, a data scientist at Northeastern University, said CityScore is a good first step in attempting to simplify complicated data. But he acknowledged that initially he had concerns about how to interpret the numbers.
"I trust the numbers. I didn't always know what they mean,'' O'Brien said. "There could be stronger documentation for how to interpret them relative to real world events."
Officials have since told him that they now have explainers to help users better understand the numbers, he said.
Susan Crawford, a Harvard Law School professor who teaches a course on cities' use of technology, agreed with many of the concerns raised about CityScore, but praised Boston for attempting to do something innovative with government.
"Is life actually getting better for people in Boston?'' said Crawford, author of the book "The Responsive City: Using Data to Enhance Democracy." "It's hard to answer when using these metrics. At the same time, you can see the city attempting to do its job more visibly. And that is a huge improvement."