How a partnership between the city of Boston and local universities is working to help policymakers better serve residents

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How a partnership between the city of Boston and local universities is working to help policymakers better serve residents
Northeastern University is where the Boston Area Research Initiative is housed. David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

  • The Boston Area Research Initiative helps policymakers better understand and serve residents.
  • BARI collaborates with universities on research projects to offer insights into life in the city.
  • Efforts include research on the city's 311 nonemergency reporting system and an annual conference.

The Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI) brings together academics, policymakers, and community leaders to examine how data and technology can reshape the city's future.

"We put a real focus not just on cool technology and efficiency," Dan O'Brien, director of BARI, told Insider, but how these tools can enhance equity, justice, democracy, sustainability, and resilience in Boston.

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The multiuniversity partnership consists of the city of Boston, Northeastern University, where the organization is housed, Harvard University, and other higher-education institutions in the area. Its mission is to collaborate on research projects and offer insights into daily life in the city to help policymakers better understand and serve residents.

How a partnership between the city of Boston and local universities is working to help policymakers better serve residents
Dan O'Brien is the director of BARI. Adam Glanzman / Northeastern University

City-university partnerships are critical to digital transformation, as city agencies are consumed by "the daily grind of running a city," O'Brien, who's also an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs, criminology, and criminal justice at Northeastern University said. "Universities bring skills and extra capacity to the table to design research studies, execute research studies, to evaluate, and just to help ask questions."

BARI has worked with Boston on several projects, including examining how residents use the city's nonemergency reporting system, studying urban heat islands, and hosting an annual conference to discuss and find solutions for the city's biggest challenges.

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Here's a look at some of these projects.

Research on Boston's nonemergency reporting system revealed inequities in services

Soon after BARI launched in 2011, the organization began working with the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics to analyze data collected from the city's 311 nonemergency reporting system.

The project involved analyzing hundreds of thousands of reports to the system about issues like potholes, broken street lights, and litter to identify who was using 311 and why. Researchers also surveyed residents and ran experiments to see how residents responded to advertisements for 311.

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The research showed that city services may be democratized, but they weren't necessarily equitable. Some neighborhoods may have just as many needs as others but don't report problems to 311.

In 2018, O'Brien published a book on the project titled "The Urban Commons," which outlines why specific neighborhoods took ownership of their environment and infrastructure and reported problems to 311. It also identified ways for city governments to deploy technology, engage citizens, and use the data.

"We demonstrated that this collaboration between academia and city agencies could take a new technology, evaluate it, make it stronger, give it meaning and understanding, and essentially advance research at the same time as policy and have the two be mutually reinforcing," O'Brien said.

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The relationship between heat islands and medical emergencies demonstrates the usefulness of smart-sensor tech

The relationship between the city's heat islands, areas that are warmer than surrounding places, and emergency medical reports is another area of O'Brien's research into what he calls "microspatial inequities," or how equitable the features of an area are.

In July 2020, he coauthored a study published in the American Journal of Public Health that found street temperatures within Boston neighborhoods can vary by as much as 20 or 30 degrees, depending on the presence of trees and amount of pavement. His team compared temperature data to 911 reports of medical emergencies and found that streets with higher land surface temperatures had more medical emergencies.

"Basically, it was what street you were on and its temperature that was more important than what neighborhood you were in," O'Brien said.

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This project offers lessons for the city as it deals with pollution and prepares for climate change. "Could it be that areas all have their own microspatial components that we should be tracking and responding to and being supportive of?" he said.

The need to granularly examine neighborhoods in this manner justifies the need for sensor systems in some areas and offers guidelines for how to design those systems, O'Brien said. Boston has deployed sensors and cameras on some city streets to examine issues like traffic and safety through its Smart Streets initiative.

Putting a sensor on every street corner isn't the only solution, though. O'Brien said there isn't enough evidence as to how much value it offers the city. More targeted pilots could provide this information.

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"These are the logistical questions that need to be answered if you're going to build a tool," he said. "How do we optimize to not overspend for a piece of infrastructure like this?" he added.

Conferences and community training aids in Boston's digital transformation

BARI hosts an annual conference that brings together nearby universities, city agencies, local organizations, and public-sector companies. This year's event, held in April, centered on helping the city rebuild post-pandemic.

"It's an opportunity for everyone to come together," O'Brien said. "They're sharing their work, they're building their own collaborations, they're seeing us as a forum where experts of many different stripes can come together to further this work and set a communal agenda."

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The organization also holds community-based training to teach organizations how to access the data BARI publishes. The goal is to give communities the opportunity to contribute in an egalitarian way to Boston's digital transformation.

"Otherwise, the transformation is going to happen to them, not with them," O'Brien said. "And that's a real problem for all smart cities or smart cities-adjacent work. It's one that my colleagues and I are very conscious of in Boston and have been working to solve."

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