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Boston's new data chief explains how he plans to leverage CDO job

The first person to take over the CDO role for the city of Boston is hoping to support existing teams to make government more effective by leveraging data and analytics.

The city of Boston has been moving ahead rapidly in recent years to make its operations more data driven. With the hiring of its first chief data officer, Andrew Therriault, the city is hoping to accelerate this process.

Therriault comes to the city from the political realm. After doing consulting work for a few years he moved to the Democratic National Committee in 2014 where he helped the party standardize many of the data-driven processes pioneered by the Obama campaign in 2012. He spoke with SearchBusinessAnalytics about how he plans to leverage that experience to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of city government.

What are some of the main initiatives you'd like to tackle as you step into the CDO job?

Andrew Therriault: One of the great things about the team so far is they've been making a lot of progress in the areas of data visualization and bringing data together from different sources in order to find new and creative ways to use data. For example, I'm sure you've seen the data dashboards to track city government performance, as well as internal ones for things like building hazard information provided to the fire department. They just came out with a citywide diversity dashboard tracking trends in hiring and other city staffing issues. So I'm looking to build on those successes and bring in the ability to go into new areas so we're not just reacting. I'd like to get to a place where we can do more to be proactive and start getting ahead of problems.

Andrew Therriault, CDO for the city of BostonAndrew Therriault

With the example of the information dashboard for the fire department, ideally we wouldn't just be providing that information at the time something happens, but we would use the information to try to figure out how to prevent fires from happening in the first place. Or in another area, find ways to prevent people from dropping out of school. A lot of these problems are easier to address if we can intervene before they get to that crisis stage.

Do you think it's going to require any new technology, new software, to accomplish these goals?

Therriault: I think one of the first things I do when I get to the office is to start doing an inventory of what we have, what we're using. I think we're going to be exploring what the options are, particularly in areas like open source software, finding ways to integrate with the broader community in using the best tools and applications.

The CDO job is relatively new for city governments. What's the potential for cities in implementing this type of role?

Therriault: There is a precedent of several cities moving in this direction. New York, Chicago and Los Angeles all have chief data officers and are building up similar analytics programs. One of the things I hope to do more is partner with other cities who are facing some of the same challenges and build on each other's work so that we're not all tackling these problems for the first time. What I hope we can do is find ways to partner with other cities to figure out standards and best practices for the use of data in city government.

Internet of things and smart cities are gaining a lot of attention. Is that something you're interested in your current CDO role?

Therriault: Absolutely, and that's an area where the city has already made some strides. For example they've been working with Waze data to track traffic patterns throughout the city. I think there's a lot of potential in those areas, particularly when it comes to transportation. We're also looking at using it to monitor road conditions, using sensors to figure out which roads may be in need of repair. We're definitely going to explore more of it. It's an area we're looking to get more into.

We've talked about specific issues, but when you pull back and look at your broader priorities, what are some of the bigger picture areas you'd like to focus on as you step into the CDO job?

Therriault: The way I've often approached using data has been with two key goals in mind: making things more efficient and making things more effective. That's an approach I've practiced in the political world and I plan to use in city government.

We can find ways to make city government more efficient by finding ways to conserve resources and better target city services, and we can also make it more effective by finding new and better ways to use city government to affect some kind of change to improve citizens' lives. Efficiency and effectiveness are both part of our goal.

I often remind people who work for me that people who work for data seldom accomplish things directly. Instead, the way we accomplish any goal is to help other people do their job better, provide resources and information to make them more efficient and better at what they do. The only way we can accomplish something here is to build strong partnerships throughout city government and really be a force multiplier. We plan to be part of a much more integrative team with all other departments throughout city government.

So it's not so much about what you and your team can do with data. It's more about what you can help other teams do with data.

Therriault: Exactly. One of the questions I was asked early on in this process was "If you were going to talk with the chief of police or someone else in the cabinet, what is your sales pitch going to be?" My response to that was it's not going to be a sales pitch. In those meetings, I want to walk in with a question, which is "How can we help you do your work better?" I think there's a great team assembled within the city of Boston, and there are a lot of really strong programs in place, and we want to work to amplify their effectiveness rather than build something from scratch. That's the metric we're going to use to measure our success. 

Next Steps

CDO job requires the right personality to make the most of it

As data grows in value, more CDO jobs become available

Every CIO needs a good CDO by their side

This was last published in June 2016

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