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By Craig Campbell

On July 13, 2011, late Boston Mayor Thomas Menino signed an executive order that created a special task force for city’s most risk-prone and risk-causing addresses. The result—the Problem Properties Task Force — was and is a platform for cross-agency collaboration that works to address and preempt community disorder. The idea driving the project is simple: the more dangerous an area, the more dangerous activity it attracts. A few isolated properties, the mayor suspected, caused a disproportionate amount of trouble for city officials. Early intervention became an imperative.

“The project aligns city resources to identify properties that have become focal points for illegal activity and nuisances to the community,” said Matt Mayrl, Deputy CIO for the City of Boston. “The Task Force’s job was to bring City leaders to the table to ask: How can we integrate the data to identify those properties? What regulatory strategies do we have to tackle these issues?" Designed to convene the most relevant heads of city departments, these meetings included the Police Commissioner, the Fire Commissioner, the Commissioner of Inspectional Services, the Director of the Office of Neighborhood Services, the Commissioner of Public Health, the Collector-Treasurer, the Director of the Air Pollution Control Commission, and the Corporation Counsel. Each furnished existing datasets from their respective agencies, which were then consolidated with data from the Mayor’s 24-Hour Hotline.

In order to convert these datasets into action items, the City invested in an SAP High-Performance Analytic Appliance (HANA). This system combines data storage with data processing to generate a comprehensive reporting universe. Together, these tools “allowed us to cut across different stacks of data and produce analytics that are more easily consumable,” Mayrl said. “When you align data so that multiple systems can easily be cross-referenced, the queries that power multivariate weighting are made possible.”

Importantly, this weighting scheme allows the Task Force to use discretion throughout the process. Meeting every two weeks, each member is charged with reviewing his or her department’s records and incoming public complaints, which complement the analytics engine in the decision making process. Once the Chair of the Task Force makes the final decision, the Task Force determines the appropriate action to take. That could mean increasing police surveillance, expediting enforcement proceedings by the Air Pollution Control Commission, levying of charges to recoup public costs, or commencing foreclosure proceedings against a property owner with delinquent real estate taxes.

In the first year of the program, the 18 buildings designated as problem properties showed a 55% reduction in police calls to those areas. As of the end of 2014, 291 properties had been flagged for investigation. Out of those, 58 were designated as "problem properties” and 44 resolved their issues following city intervention. 39 properties that were investigated but not designated also resolved their issues—a testament to the effectiveness of the program’s tiered-intervention design.

While other American cities have programs in place to address their issue-laden real estate, the Problem Properties Task Force is notable for its effectiveness. Not only does the program deliver clear social value to the communities it serves; it also saves the city money in the long term by targeting properties before situations worsen—and become more expensive.

On whether the program could be copied in other cities, Maryl said that "every city has these issues. Even in a dense, vibrant urban environment, a lot of the biggest problems are caused by a small group of individuals and properties. That's not unique to Boston. That's a common situation."

About the Author

Craig Campbell

Craig Campbell is a Research Fellow in the Mayor's Office of Data Analytics in New York City, where he works with the Chief Analytics Officer and Chief Open Platform Officer as part of the Civic Analytics Network. He has worked previously at the Ash Center doing research and writing for Data-Smart City Solutions and the Project on Municipal Innovation. He has a Bachelor's Degree in Architectural Studies and Mathematics from Amherst College.

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