Jun 24 2016

Q&A: Boston’s First-Ever Chief Data Officer Takes the Reins

Andrew Therriault wants to use data to drive innovation and offer more valuable services to Beantown’s citizens.

As cities become more reliant on technology, data is quickly becoming the crown jewel. Along with this increased emphasis on data comes the need for municipal data stewards. Chief data officers have started cropping up at the state and local levels, and Boston is the latest city to join the ranks.

The city recently named Andrew Therriault as its first chief data officer, and StateTech had an opportunity to chat with him during his first week on the job. He spoke about some of his previous experience as an analytics leader and also about the untapped potential for Boston’s data in the long run.

STATETECH: Where did you work previously, and how did you land this gig as Boston’s first Chief Data Officer?

THERRIAULT: For the past five years, I've been working in the political data-science world for consulting firms, most recently as the director of data science at the Democratic National Committee. While there, I built a data-science program from the ground up, bringing in new people and applying new tools and technologies to solve the various problems we dealt with there. After a couple years, I came across this job. I grew up in the Boston area, I'm from the North Shore, a city called Haverhill. I had the opportunity through various contacts to talk more about this job, and ultimately it sounded like a great opportunity. It is a really exciting opportunity, one that ultimately I couldn't pass up.

STATETECH: What excites you about stepping into this role with a city government?

THERRIAULT: I'm somebody who really enjoys finding creative solutions to data-related problems and finding ways to use data to tackle real-world issues. So as somebody who’s done this in the political world, that’s a great opportunity, and what I'm really looking forward to most here is the opportunity to take some of the same skills and experiences that came with that and apply them in a new area where I get to work on different kinds of problems and still have an impact on making citizen’s lives better on a day-to-day basis.

STATETECH: What are some of the initial projects you’re hoping to get started on?

THERRIAULT: Last month, the city released its diversity dashboard. This kind of builds on the same technology that went into our city score system, which provides performance metrics in data dashboards that can be accessed both internally, within city hall, and in public-facing components. So the public can see what's going on throughout the city. What the diversity dashboard does is allow the public to look at the demographics and other characteristics of the city’s workforce — for example, look at trending pay by gender, ethnicity, which is part of the mayor's efforts to ensure that we have a diverse representative workforce in the city — and lets us be transparent and open to the public to show how we're doing in a very honest sense, in order to help us to do better as we move forward.

One thing we've been working on more recently is city street repairs. We've already put in a lot of effort to build new systems to allow citizens to, say, report potholes and track how those are filled over time. Another area we’re moving into is new technology, like sensors on city vehicles to monitor where road conditions are the roughest in order to do predictive modeling — not just to identify where there are issues, but eventually to get to a point where we can forecast where we're going to need to focus our repairs, to prioritize better in advance.

STATETECH: What are your thoughts on the rise of the chief data officer position, and how does that role fit into the city leadership?

THERRIAULT: The CDO role is within the city’s department of innovation and technology, so it’s part of the broader effort to increase our technological capacity and use that to expand our capabilities to respond to citizens’ needs. But this role in particular is a way to bring together a lot of the more fragmented efforts that have been made throughout different parts of the city government to take advantage of the data that we have and improve the efficiency and effectiveness of government service. The city wants somebody who can come in and bring more unity to those operations and turn them from a group of people working on similar projects into a more cohesive team. It’s a step in our efforts to improve the overall quality and sophistication of what we're delivering to our stakeholders and citizens.

STATETECH: What are some initial successes that you hope to check off of your list in the next five years?

THERRIAULT: Well, I think I’m going to disappoint you with this answer, but if you're talking five-year plans, let's check back in a few months. My role first and foremost is to make sure that things we’ve already accomplished continue to progress and be maintained and then start building from there. We have a great team in place, we have a lot of interesting and successful projects that we’ve already done. Beyond that, longer term, we’re going to find more opportunities as we go through the inventory of what we’re already doing and what we see as things that we can accomplish in the near term. But very generally, we want to go more into the area of doing machine learning and predictive modeling, that sort of thing. Bring in more technical sophistication in order to just expand the range of things we're able to provide to various stakeholders throughout city government.

STATETECH: How do you make data accessible and help citizens understand the value of collecting and analyzing and exposing data?

THERRIAULT: The first step is one we've already taken, which is to provide these public portals for citizens to interact with our data. We have major open-data projects that provide direct downloads of various city metrics. If anybody wants to work with the data directly, they can go through there. We’ve also been doing a lot of data visualization to make the data more accessible through our various dashboard programs, and we want to keep doing that and provide a greater degree of transparency and openness about where the city is doing well and where there’s room for improvement. Overall, we want to show that we are really connected to what's going on throughout the city, and we’re working to do everything better from one day to the next.

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