Moving Municipal Tech Out of the Typewriter Era

In Boston, Alex Lawrence MPP 2014 is ensuring that data and tech have a front-row seat at the policymaking table

Boston likes to fashion itself as a global tech hub, proud of the legions of start-ups and tech workers who have made its economy the envy of cities around the country. Yet vestiges of Boston’s analog past can still be found, if you know where to look—such as in the long, brick-fronted building that sprawls over much of a block along Massachusetts Avenue in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood. From the building, which houses the city’s Inspectional Services Division (ISD), the sounds of aging IBM Wheelwriter 1500 electric typewriters, which until recently filled the ISD offices. used to be heard as permit-seekers hunched over its well-worn keys typing out applications for zoning variances.  

“Imagine you're just trying to build a fence or put in an extra window on your home, and then you come into Inspectional Services and they say, ‘Here's a typewriter, fill out this form,’” says Alex Lawrence MPP 2014, reflecting on when she started out as a project manager for the city of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) in 2014. When she was handed an assignment to help build an online permitting process for the city, Lawrence consigned the typewriters to the trash bin. 

While the typewriter may be a fitting metaphor for the challenges that cities face in adopting and maintaining modern technology solutions, Lawrence’s work went well beyond just junking an ancient IBM. Overhauling one of Boston’s most important, but labyrinthine, city agencies to ensure that everyone from homeowners trying to get approval for their new fence to inspectors out in the field checking on building safety would have access to technology that would make their work faster, more transparent, and safer was a challenging endeavor. “One of the most important things was creating a more clear and predictable process for constituents. When you're thinking about construction projects, both small and large, these are people's livelihoods.” 

 

“This is actually a place where you can make a ton of change"   

 

Lawrence first found herself shuttling around Boston’s imposing brutalist city hall and outlying offices and departments, working to implement complex technology and data projects, after spending a summer as an Ash Center student fellow with the city’s vaunted Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM). During her time at the city’s in-house innovation lab, the opportunity to make a difference that working for local government offers resonated with Lawrence, and she determined it was what she wanted to do after graduating from HKS. “This is actually a place where you can make a ton of change."   

Lawrence stands outside of city hall, a large sign that reads Boston is blurred in the background behind her
Lawrence stands outside of Boston City Hall, where she now works in the Department of Innovation and Technology

Her experience modernizing the permitting process opened the door to other large-scale projects at DoIT, where she currently serves as chief of staff. Her work there encompasses far more than that of typical municipal information technology officers that manage vendors and technology platforms, itself a crucial job in a bureaucracy where the clattering of typewriters isn’t just a distant memory. Lawrence’s work takes her across city hall, working with a variety of offices and departments as well as the city council to devise technology and data solutions for mayoral initiatives and legislative proposals.  

“When the city signed legislation to take on short-term rentals, there's a ton of different work streams that come along with that,” says Lawrence, referring to a recent ordinance that required the registration of housing rentals in Boston and restricted which kinds of properties could be rented. Made popular by companies such as Airbnb, the proliferation of short-term rentals across the city sparked concerns that property owners were pushing out long-term tenants in favor of more profitable tourism and business travel rentals, which city councilors and the mayor feared would lead to higher housing prices and destabilize neighborhoods. Proposed short-term rental regulations depended on the city’s ability to register and track such rentals, as well as work with ISD to set up an all-new enforcement regime. “That involved getting data from across the internet, from all these various platforms like Airbnb, and from citizens, as well. The city council and the mayor hammer out the specifics of the ordinance. And now it's like, ‘Oh my gosh, how do we translate the policy directives contained in this new law into concrete, actionable steps in terms of monitoring and enforcement?’” 

Since managing data was at the heart of the new short-term housing law, Lawrence and her colleagues at DoIT were brought into the process during some of the initial discussions over the ordinance before it was passed. “It was a unique time because I don't think technology often gets a seat at the table. It often feels to us, a policy is passed, and then it's like, ‘New tech, you can build that tomorrow. Right?’’’ The short-term rental law required an unprecedented level of coordination across city departments, as well as with DoIT’s analytics and enterprise teams.  

“I would argue that we should be at the table any time an ordinance has passed,” says Lawrence. “There's always going to be a piece of, ‘How do we track the thing?’ and then, ‘How do we actually do all of those things?’ That to me is the ultimate use of my public policy degree.”