Boston, Massachusetts

Living in a 1.25 World: How Boston Uses Data to Keep Score

By Sharman Stein and Kristin Taylor

An electronic display in Boston City Hall shows the day’s City Score

How’s Boston doing today? It’s hard to ignore that message in Boston City Hall, where signs asking the question are ubiquitous and where the answer, broadcast on electronic displays, looks something like this: 1.17. When Mayor Marty Walsh took office four years ago, one of the first things he told staff was that he wanted a data dashboard — a quick way to continually be able to assess how the City was performing. Drawing inspiration from other cities, including the data program developed during the administration of former NYC Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, Boston staff created CityScore. “It sent the message that this wasn’t just an exercise,” said the Mayor’s Chief of Staff Daniel Koh when we spoke with him yesterday.

Now, every time Mayor Walsh looks up from his desk, the dashboard is what he sees. There’s no way to avoid it. (We sat at the Mayor’s desk when he was out of the office, just to make sure!) There he gets key information on everything from the reasons why Bostonians are calling 311 (parking, potholes, street light outages, to name a few) to Emergency Medical Services response times, public library usage, and public safety data, such as stabbings and shootings. The dashboard tracks these trends and the performance of city departments across the day, week, month, and quarter, giving the Mayor both a short- and long-term view of the City’s health and government performance. All those smaller scores roll up into one overall number each day — the city’s score. Anything below a 1 is a cause for concern, while 1.25 is a perfect score. As Koh put it, “We’re living in 1.25 world.” (The score sat comfortably at 1.17 on the day of our visit.)

The CityScore dashboard, as seen from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s desk

Right now, the City is focusing on improving 311 call response times, so an entire screen of the dashboard in the Mayor’s office is dedicated to tracking related metrics. Stefanie Costa Leabo, Deputy Director of Performance Management, explained that Boston is aiming to respond to 95% of calls within 30 seconds or fewer. (On the morning of our visit, the average response time was 35 seconds.) Thirty seconds is an ambitious target: when the City researched similar call centers’ goals, they found that most are striving to fulfill around 80% of calls within a minute. But Boston is aiming high. “You’re the voice of the City,” Leabo said. “Constituents are coming to you, and they’re expecting help.”

The tracking of EMS response time was an earlier focus. After the Mayor noticed a drop in performance, staff investigated and found that more ambulances were needed. The City’s data team also took a closer look at the types of 911 calls and discovered that the vehicles were being sent to incidents for which emergency transport wasn’t required. By developing a new category of calls, dispatchers could reserve ambulances for when they were truly needed, resulting in better care for residents, lower costs, and less staff time. “This is an example of CityScore literally saving lives,” Koh told us. “You’re improving how ambulances get from point A to point Z.”

Staff know the Mayor is constantly using data to assess how the City is working, so they’re more inclined to take a data-focused approach to how they measure their own progress, says Costa Leabo. And even though departments are being assessed on a daily basis, the system is not meant to be punitive, which is why indicators weren’t assigned letter grades. Being behind in targets doesn’t mean you’re failing, just that you need improvements, said Koh.

The authors, Kristin Taylor (left) and Sharman Stein (right) stand with Stefanie Costa Leabo, Deputy Director of Performance Management

As Koh has watched CityScore drive many such improvements across City Hall, he’s developed a vision for the future: “that every single city in the country uses it.” Together, cities would compete with each other and share best practices to boost each other’s scores — and outcomes for people. The City could already be on its way to making that goal a reality thanks to the launch of its CityScore toolkit last summer, which is helping other cities implement their own version of the initiative. “The implications for how well governments can serve people are vast,” said Koh.

Boston’s focus on data made the City a ready participant for What Works Cities (WWC). Since joining the initiative in March 2016, Boston has worked with WWC partner the Government Performance Lab at the Harvard Kennedy School on strengthening its contracts with outside vendors to ensure stronger outcomes for everything from street repairs to its bike share program. Keep an eye out for our next post to learn more.


Sharman Stein is the Director of Communications at What Works Cities, and Kristin Taylor is the initiative’s Senior Communications Manager. This week, they’re visiting several participating cities in the Northeast to show you more about how local governments are finding what works. Read more of their posts here.