Power to the People: How the City of Boston is driving civic innovation through crowdsourcing

The public can help fill gaps in government capacity and drive newfound productivity – but only if the city has the means to turn data into action.

“No matter who you are, most of the smartest people don’t work for you.” – Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems[1]

Crowdsourcing in the Public Sector

How do you solve critical problems and drive innovative solutions when dealing with constraints of time, talent, and resources? Municipal governments have consistently faced this challenge in their attempt to serve their citizens.[2] Big data has the potential to help cities improve operational efficiency, yet the public sector often lack the expertise and resources to use new data and methods effectively.[3]

The public sector has begun to tap into their constituents to provide fresh ideas, gather data, and develop solutions, taking a page out of the playbook of the private sector, which has increasingly looked to crowdsourcing as an cheap alternative labor resource.[4] Technology has “turbocharged crowdsourcing’s potency and application,” allowing competitions and open calls for ideas to reach the masses through social media, mobile apps, and web platforms, such as Kaggle, TopCoder, and DrivenData.[5]

Figure 1. Kaggle Platform, Source: Indico

26% of municipalities have crowdsourced ideas from residents to address city needs[6]  

The City of Boston has established itself as a leader among municipalities in leveraging crowdsourcing to solve civic problems. Founded in 2010 as the mayor’s civic R&D team, the Office of New Urban Mechanics serves as the headquarters of Boston’s efforts to use technology and data to improve quality of life in the city.[7] One concern, however, is that a city will become over-saturated with data gathered through crowdsourcing while still lacking the internal capacity needed to analyze it and implement changes accordingly.

Short Term Thinking

In the short-term, the City of Boston is limiting its scope by leveraging crowdsourcing to improve delivery of existing services.

In 2011, the City developed a smartphone app called Street Bump intended to help find and fix issues in the city’s roadway infrastructure. The app uses sensors to detect sudden jolts as the resident drives.[8] When multiple phones report a jolt in the same GPS location, the app sends notice of a pothole that needs repair.[9] Street Bump helps the City optimize use of internal time and resources by creating “an army of volunteer pothole-spotters.”[10]

Figure 2. Street Bump App, Source: Boston University

In 2017, the City launched a new effort to gather data from residents to improve its ‘311’ service. The online interface asks users to describe their issue in one sentence or less. This information feeds into a machine-learning algorithm that sends users to a shortlist of applicable resources – a major improvement from the original system which listed dozens of potential resources. Each complaint is used as a data point allowing the City to quickly identify shared issues.[11]

Medium Term Thinking

Going forward, crowdsourcing will facilitate Boston’s goal of improving citizen engagement and creating a more welcoming, equitable, and resilient city.[12] In broadening the scope of its effort, the City risks being overwhelmed with data; however, by developing partnerships, the City is increasing its capacity and ensuring its ability to execute on new ideas.

The City has partnered with ioby.org – a non-profit civic crowdsourcing platform – to support residents in projects intended to make Boston’s communal “third spaces” (e.g., parks, coffee shops, and churches) more welcoming, connected, and creative.[13] Once residents submit their project idea, the ioby team connects them to a coach who advises on how to scope the project, write a budget, and use the ioby platform to fundraise.[14]

Figure 3. Boston Third Spaces Promotion, Source: Twitter


To use crowdsourcing in a high impact way, the City should do the following:

  • Do not overuse this tactic. The City must continue to think strategically about when it is appropriate to use open innovation versus developing capacity within the organization.
  • Seek talent that understands how to execute crowdsourcing programs effectively. The City must have staff dedicated to managing these programs and ensuring that the good resulting ideas are implemented.
  • Continue to learn from the private sector. When possible, the City should develop partnerships with companies such as Uber and Yelp by both providing and using available open data.

Open Questions

When are the limitations of crowdsourcing in government and when might it not be appropriate to use?

If the City outsources key tasks, does it jeopardize its ability to build internal talent and capacity?


Word Count: 799



[1] Kevin Lakhani and Jill Panetta, The principles of distributed innovation. Innovations: Technology, Governance, Globalization 2, no. 3 (Summer 2007): 97.

[2] Deloitte, “The value of crowdsourcing: A public sector guide to harnessing the crowd,” p. 1, https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/public-sector/us-fed-a-public-sector-guide-to-harnessing-the-crowd.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[3] Edward Glaeser, Andrew Hillis, Scott D. Kominers, and Michael Luca, “Crowdsourcing City Government: Using Tournaments to Improve Inspection Accuracy,” NBER Working Paper No. 22124, 2016, https://www.nber.org/papers/w22124.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[4] Deloitte, “The value of crowdsourcing,” p. 1.

[5] Kevin Boudreau and Karim Lakhani, “Using the Crowd as an Innovation Partner,” Harvard Business Review (April 2013): 69. Glaeser, Hillis, Kominers, Luca, “Crowdsourcing City Government.”

[6] Bloomberg Philanthropies, “2018 American Mayors Survey,” April 2018, p. 14, https://www.bbhub.io/dotorg/sites/2/2018/04/American-Mayors-Survey.pdf, accessed November 2018.

[7] City of Boston, “New Urban Mechanics,” https://www.boston.gov/departments/new-urban-mechanics, accessed November 2018.

[8] City of Boston, “Street Bump,” https://www.boston.gov/departments/new-urban-mechanics/street-bump, accessed November 2018.

[9] John Brandon, “Road Repair via Crowdsourcing,” MIT Technology Review, May 13, 2011, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/423997/road-repair-via-crowdsourcing/, accessed November 2018.

[10] City of Boston, “Street Bump.”

[11] Zack Quaintance, “Boston Launches New Crowdsourcing Model for 311,” Government Technology, November 2, 2017, http://www.govtech.com/civic/Boston-Launches-New-Crowdsourcing-Model-for-311.html, accessed November 2018.

[12] Bloomberg Cities, “How crowdsourcing drives citizen engagement,” May 10, 2018, https://medium.com/@BloombergCities/how-crowdsourcing-drives-citizen-engagement-eb5a7eeaf2b1, accessed November 2018; City of Boston, “Imagine Boston 2030,” https://imagine.boston.gov/metrics-dashboard/, accessed November 2018.

[13] City of Boston, “Community Made,” https://www.boston.gov/departments/new-urban-mechanics/community-made, accessed November 2018.

[14] Bloomberg Cities, “How crowdsourcing drives citizen engagement.”


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Student comments on Power to the People: How the City of Boston is driving civic innovation through crowdsourcing

  1. Great read, thanks for sharing these initiatives. I agree with the recommendations you outline – to make these initiatives more impactful, and to have suggestions be representative of the community as a whole, rather than a select few individuals, I think municipalities should use the data more for idea generation rather than idea selection. Governments need to be cognizant of the issues that are impacting citizens, though without a proper weighing mechanism in these applications, cities will have a hard time assigning priority. I think by thoroughly evaluating data, and by enabling citizens through initiatives such as ioby, governments can more effectively make use of its own resources and drill down on critical issues within communities.

  2. Interesting take and a creative solution to some of the persistent issues plaguing the public sector. I think crowdsourcing provides two significant benefits to the city of Boston here; (1) gathering and leveraging innovative ideas in the face of time and resource constraints and (2) increasing constituent engagement. However, I agree that it should not be overused – I see crowdsourcing as means to help identify issues from the bottom up or to gather potential ideas to solve specific issues which in essence widens the funnel of ideas entering the product or service development process at the city level. I have one major concern with your recommendation to learn and partner with the private sector which could cause issues with privacy and trust between the government and its constituents. For that reason, I think it would be unwise to share data with and use data from private sector companies. I do see this trend expanding beyond Boston as governments seek to engage citizens, learn the true issues facing their constituents and more effectively utilize its resources to solve the important and pressing issues facing them and I’m interested in seeing where this goes next.

  3. It’s great to learn more about initiatives aiming to increase the level of public participation in improving their own environments. Some folks from New Urban Mechanics actually visited an urban planning class I took in undergrad; they’re super cool! I was really struck by your first question about the limitations and appropriateness of relying on open innovation to influence government. I think government and municipal institutions should be wary of falling prey to weaknesses in the self-selected nature of crowd sourcing platforms. Without safe guards, a small-but-passionate group could push for changes that negatively impact the majority. On the other end of the spectrum, crowd sourcing could reinforce a tyranny of the majority, further harming already marginalized communities who may be less able to contribute. It would be great to see more targeted application of open innovation forums to glean perspectives from specific groups.

  4. I enjoyed reading on how our city is actually actively involving the citizens through crowdsourcing!! I actually think this approach has a double benefit: not only does the city benefit from talents that would otherwise be unreach but it is also a great way to solve relevant pain points. Because the people that are helping to solve the problem are the user of the service, I believe that the output will be relevant and user-centric!

  5. Super interesting!

    I lived in East Harlem during the neighborhood’s participatory planning process, and I saw how time-intensive and contentious crowdsourced innovation can be. A question I have about Boston’s initiatives is how they’ll manage tensions and conflicts that arise, as a group of residents suggests something that another group is totally opposed to? There are also some discussions and ideas that warrant in-person processes where trust can be built and everyone can feel heard and included. Boston should take care not to rely entirely on online platforms for their crowdsourcing efforts.

    I have some serious concerns with all the collection and use of data… Feels very “Big Brother-y”! I’m wary of giving up too much of my data, especially to governments — what if the administration changes and I don’t agree with their use of my data, for example? This happened as Obama left office and Democratic government agencies across the US had to delete databases that contained sensitive information about undocumented immigrants because they weren’t sure how that information would be used under a more conservative administration. I think there are some serious questions about the limitations of the collection and use of personal data in a city, and I’m so curious to see where this conversation goes in the Boston context.

    The ioby project seems really neat!

  6. It’s great to see local governments using technology and crowd sourcing to be more efficient and effective! These tools are surely part of the solution to help local governments overcome a lack of resources and money. You raise an interesting question about when it should be okay for the government to collect and use citizen’s private data. I think its important that people have a choice to opt-in or out – the Street Bump app seems to accomplish this well.
    Regarding the impact these tools may have on the abilities of the government agencies over time, I actually think they could attract and retain better talent by employing these tools. I assume that many people would love to create innovative ways to understand public sentiment and behavior and work towards improving the lives of the citizens. The more creative you can be and the more tools you have at your disposal only aids in this process. I hope more local and state governments learn from Boston’s example!

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