5 Q’s for Kristopher Carter, New Urban Mechanic at the City of Boston
The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Kristopher Carter from the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) in Boston, Massachusetts. Carter discussed how the city is using Street Bump, a smartphone app that can help the city identify more easily identify damaged roads, as well as a new program to deploy smart benches throughout the city.
Joshua New: MONUM is a pretty interesting concept that Boston formed in 2010, and now there are offices of new urban mechanics in Philadelphia and Utah Valley University. How does MONUM work and what are its goals?
Kristopher Carter: MONUM operates as a civic innovation team embedded within local government to focus on what is new and next for city services. We follow a model of “Source, Pilot, Scale” with our work, seeking out ways we can test ideas that improve the lives of people in our city. We collaborate across all city departments but also extensively with research institutions, civic entrepreneurs, and start-ups to think through complex urban issues and iterate on solutions. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don’t, but the occasional failure is baked into our model—something government is not traditionally equipped to handle—which helps us push forward on non-traditional projects.
New: Most people are probably familiar with MONUM thanks to Street Bump, a MONUM-developed smartphone app that Boston residents can use while driving around the city to automatically detect and report data about potholes whenever they drive over one. Street Bump seems very promising on paper, but how useful has Street Bump data been for improving Boston’s roads?
Carter: Street Bump is a really interesting project with great potential for improving how we think about infrastructure maintenance. It’s still in beta testing, and we learned quite a bit about how to read a street. The biggest initial issue for us was differentiating between a pothole and a sunk casting—like a manhole cover. Since these require two different types of repairs, it’s hard to deploy the proper crew for certain, so we’ve actually begun to shift some of our thinking on road quality so we can be more comprehensive in our approach. What is it like for different modes traveling on our streets and sidewalks? How does a person walking, driving, biking, or in a wheelchair prioritize different elements in their route selection? This moves beyond just observing and fixing bumps in the pavement, but collecting data through a sensor pack that can inform the experience of the street, such as noise and light levels, air quality, proximity sensing, temperature, and road quality. All of that data can then be overlaid to understand areas of our city that are deficient for different users, and we can target our infrastructure investments accordingly. So Street Bump was just that start for us, and the future is very exciting.
New: Street Bump is a great example of the concept of the “citizen sensor”—members of the public that can generate and report data to improve municipal services. Has MONUM tried to tap the potential of the “citizen sensor” for any other purposes?
Carter: Active collection of data has been a major focus of ours. We launched the app Citizens Connect—now called BOS311—in 2009 to allow for easy reporting of issues like graffiti or damaged street lights to the city. That data then rolls to an app called City Worker, which is in the hands of people who make the repairs. The feedback loop in those platforms is very important, and we’ve seen proof of that through its repeated use. When you think about more passive data collection, we’re in the early stages of this work. We have a great partnership with the traffic-app Waze that has allowed us to conduct experiments on the impact of double parked cars and “box-blocking” on congestion. As sensor technology becomes cheaper and more ubiquitous we are excited to work collaboratively with citizens and neighborhood groups to have them play a role in the field. We already do this through volunteer led bicycle counts in the City of Boston, so we know there are a number of data sets that people are willing to help us with and will make a big impact in helping us understand the nuances of the physical environment in neighborhoods.
New: MONUM helped Boston deploy prototypes of Soofa—public benches with solar panels that could eventually be equipped with sensor hubs to collect environmental data. What is the status of this project? Will Boston be working to expand this or similar programs that also resemble Chicago’s Array of Things project?
Carter: Our partnership with Soofa began a few years back when the founders were building them out of plywood and concrete in their lab. Often we find ourselves talking with researchers who have a great idea but need the support in testing and we were able to be that partner with Soofa. Now a few years later we have a dozen of them throughout the City. Perhaps most exciting for us is the bench installed in front of the John D. O’Bryant high school this fall by Mayor Walsh and the Soofa team. Not only does it serve as a functional piece of street furniture for Boston Public School students but we are teaching students about entrepreneurship and civic coding through the school’s science department. Students will be building their own sensors and coding apps that will interact with the bench over the course of the spring semester with guidance from us and the Soofa team.
New: What is your favorite app or project that MONUM has produced?
Carter: Picking your favorite child is a dangerous game, but it’s probably the Public Space Invitational that Michael Evans, manager of MONUM’s Prototype Lab, and I put on last year. This was an open call to architects, artists, designers, and engineers to improve small bits of public space with low-cost prototype design projects. It became a great tool for community engagement and led us to some fantastic outcomes. Not only did we work with team to deploy everything from a portable reading room to a tidal vibraphone that responds to water levels, but we unearthed a complicated permitting process for creative talent in Boston. We’ve spent the last few months working with allied departments in City Hall to fix and update the process so we can make it easier for people to experiment with and improve their city.