Boston wants to be smarter. The city has taken advantage of tiny sensors, big data and other technologies to become more responsive to its residents' needs. But technology alone is not sufficient to make today’s cities liveable. Boston has discovered that it also needs to reach the old-fashioned low-tech community and integrate that technology with city life.

Kris Carter, co-chair of the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, rolled out Boston's smart city program in 2014. It started with an app that residents could download to  report locations where sidewalks needed repair. The city collated those reports and ranked them in a database, which repair crews used to prioritize their work.

The system worked beautifully, except for one problem: most of the alerts came from wealthier neighborhoods, where the concentration of smartphone-equipped residents was highest. “The complaints that had been coming in from the app didn’t always correlate with the greatest community need for repairs,” explains Carter. “We didn’t want to only respond to the squeaky wheels.”

Boston’s push to become a leading smart city now contains a core tenet: high-tech initiatives shouldn't disproportionately benefit the already well-resourced. Under Carter, technology is seeping into the city’s functioning and daily life, but with a special eye to serving those populations and neighborhoods that need the most support. “What we want to know is how to target problems in a smart way that addresses both needs and equity goals,” he says.

Being smart without smartphones

Carter’s group has moved away from the model common to many smart city initiatives of letting tech-savvy residents and high-tech companies drive the process. Instead, they run meetings in local libraries and other public spaces to find out what problems people in different neighborhoods care about solving. “Some cities take the point of view that if you put out the right technology widgets, people will figure out how to take advantage of them,” he explains. “We wanted to start with a grass-roots view of what challenges needed to be addressed.” Only in that context, he adds, does technology enter the picture.

When it came to sidewalks, Boston introduced a second method of collecting repair tips. In addition to its smartphone app, it hired people to get out and walk the city’s 1,700 miles of sidewalks to take notes on their condition.

Another example is using technology to help those who can access it, thus freeing up manpower for those who need more support. So, during the COVID-19 crisis, Boston started a project to use chatbots to help residents access food and provide logistical support. The project is a collaboration with MIT and financed through a resilience fund that the mayor launched at the start of the pandemic. It provides an interface for residents who are homebound or otherwise unable to access any of the meal sites. The chatbots operate in multiple languages, reducing the communications burden and allowing staff to more effectively focus resources on residents who need more personal attention. “We saw this as a more nimble approach than some of the larger platforms we were being pitched early in the crisis, and a good prototype for other engagements that arise for other purposes than food,” said Karter.

Solar-powered phone chargers in park benches proved very popular. Credit: Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, City of Boston

For many other issues, Carter’s group runs small experiments into potential high-tech solutions, which can have surprising results. For instance, they installed benches with built-in solar-powered mobile-phone chargers in three different locations and monitored how they were used. One bench was in the tourist-heavy Boston Commons park, one at a children’s playground where parents often sat, and one alongside an outdoor basketball court in a low-income neighborhood. When the group examined usage data, it saw that the park charger got a fair amount of use and the playground’s almost none — whereas the basketball court charger was used almost non-stop. It turned out that players were plugging in small electronic scoreboards, adding to the court’s popularity. “The response was off the charts,” says Carter. Now the city is looking to add chargers to more neighborhood courts to promote exercise and increase well-being.

Another experiment involved placing noise and quality-of-air sensors prominently at eye level on streetlights and other poles through a few neighborhoods, labelling them so that residents would be aware of the effort. But most of the sensors were vandalized. “We had wanted to be transparent about the technology,” says Carter. “But apparently people thought the sensors were weird or annoying.” The city now plans to reinstall them, but at heights of at least 12 feet, without the labels.

Carter’s group also looks for ways that relatively inexpensive, easily deployable technology can make a difference, especially for the most vulnerable groups. To boost road safety, it released an app that encouraged people to engage in a safe driving competition with other residents, tracking their driving habits in order to name winners. The first contest in 2018 was so well received that the city has since run two more. Carter expects that this and similar apps will play a growing role in reducing traffic fatalities, “especially those involving pedestrians and senior citizens.”

However, the city veered away from the higher-tech pathway when it came to dealing with parking spaces. These are in short supply, and drivers looking for an elusive empty space were frequently circling around the block, increasing congestion by as much as 30 percent. At first Carter’s group experimented with sensors embedded in the road to detect when a space was empty. But the sensors couldn’t detect snow - a regular problem in a city where winter storms sometimes bury the streets in several feet of snow  - and would mistakenly report snow-filled spaces as empty.

The city then tried installing sensors on parking meters, alerting drivers via an app to newly open spaces, and even enlisting the data to raise parking meter prices during peak-time space crunches to encourage drivers to find other transportation or parking options. Eventually, Carter’s group raised meter prices permanently and uniformly across the city. Not only did awareness of the higher prices lead more drivers to walk, bike or take public transportation, but the extra money was used to improve bus services, which do more for lower-income neighborhoods than parking improvements.

Whether using low-tech or high-tech approaches, says Carter, to stay smart, a city needs to continually reassess its options to spot opportunities to improve residents’ lives. Take the sidewalk repair program. Walking the streets was proving a useful, if inefficient, way to prioritize repair needs. But last year the group found that pedestrians’ mobile phones could be anonymously tracked as they moved along the streets, and that data could be analyzed to identify sidewalk routes which are most often used by neighborhoods.

“Combined with our other sidewalk information, that gave us an even better way to predict where faster repairs would do the most good,” says Carter. “We’re really always looking for whatever mix of approaches best solves the problem.”

Read more about technological advances on Mega seeks to energise and enrich the debate over how to create a better functioning economy and society with articles and videos featuring leading academics, scientists and entrepreneurs active in the fields of sustainability, technology, health, alternative energy and agriculture.