By Daniel Harsha
Thirty-one Myrtle Avenue is a ragged, weather-beaten home whose sagging mansard roof and dilapidated carriage house conceal most traces of its once-great Second Empire architectural splendor. Jason Dumaine, a health inspector with the city of Fitchburg, Massachusetts, pulls up to the curb and gazes out towards the home’s broken windows, peeling paint, and unkempt yard. The building, once a symbol of Fitchburg’s industrial-era wealth is now a vacant eyesore and one of several hundred such residential, commercial, and industrial “problem properties” in the city — mostly vacant and magnets for crime and drug use.
Dumaine tells a neighbor who notices him examining the exterior of the home that addicts have used the home as a shooting gallery and stripped the building of nearly everything of value including wiring, plumbing, and other fixtures. The neighbor is visibly relieved when Dumaine tells her that the home is on a list for demolition. But, until the city can find the approximately $40,000 need to tear down the building, it will continue to loom over Myrtle Avenue — a tumor slowing investment in the neighborhood.
Fitchburg, a city of nearly 40,000 people on the banks of the North Nashua River, is a little over an hour’s drive northwest of Boston and is typical of many small- to medium-sized formerly industrial cities throughout New England. Its mills, which provided steady employment to generations of residents, have largely shuttered, hollowing out the city’s job base. The housing and financial crisis of the late 2000s is still felt acutely here with many homeowners underwater on their mortgages and scores of homes caught in the cycle of foreclosure.
These economic scars can be seen in buildings like 31 Myrtle Avenue that are a blight on their neighborhoods. But, Fitchburg and other former industrial cities that are buffeted by harsh economic winds aren’t standing idly by as their housing stock crumbles and their neighborhoods destabilize. They know that to prevent homes from falling victim to abandonment, City Hall has to embrace new and innovative solutions to combating problem properties.
Experiencing the Field
Properties like 31 Myrtle Avenue “are very visible in the urban environment: dilapidated buildings, abandoned properties, vacant lots,” said Jorrit de Jong, HKS Lecturer in Public Policy and Academic Director of the Ash Center’s Innovation in Government Program. De Jong and his colleague, Somerville, Massachusetts, Mayor Joe Curtatone who holds an appointment as senior fellow at the Ash Center, knew that there were a number of cities like Fitchburg in eastern Massachusetts, collectively known as Gateway Cities, who hungered for better tools to tackle the scourge of problem properties. Their collaboration helped plant the seeds for what would become one of the Kennedy School’s most ambitious experiential learning programs to date: the Innovation Field Lab.
Experiential learning has taken on a greater emphasis at the Kennedy School and Harvard as a whole. From the university-wide Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching to individual projects conceived and funded by schools and research centers, Harvard is redoubling its efforts to promote hands-on learning for its students. “We’ve taken the university’s message on experiential learning to heart,” reflected Tony Saich, Ash Center director and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs. “Ash, through our work with Mayor Curtatone and the Field Lab, believes deeply that students must have the opportunity to understand how government works by learning firsthand, both through failure and success, what it takes to help our cities innovate.”
The Ash Center, because of its decade’s long commitment to documenting and researching government innovation, was well placed to lead this new experiential learning effort. “We were able to build a curriculum for the Field Lab around much of the Center’s work on data analytics and performance management,” said de Jong. “We were also incredibly fortunate to draw on the support of the Taubman Center and Rappaport Institute to help provide funding for many of our students who worked in the field over the summer.”
Curtatone and de Jong, along with HKS Assistant Professor Quinton Mayne, were determined to build an ambitious project focused on problem properties as an outgrowth of the Ash Center’s wider mission: connecting research on public-sector innovation with curriculum development and engagement in the field. “The Field Lab is really about making government more collaborative, more data-driven, and more results-oriented,” said de Jong. “Problem properties is an ideal topic to focus on because everyone understands their effect on neighborhoods, but the class is more than just learning about how to ameliorate or prevent this one specific problem. It’s about learning how we can have transformative impact on city government as a whole.”
Curtatone, as both a mayor and HKS alum (MPA ‘11), was able to bring his unique perspective to the Field Lab and ensure that both students and cities would get the most out of this new partnership. “Mayor Curtatone was the ideal partner for this ambitious endeavor,” observed Saich. “As an HKS alum himself, he knows the powerful human capital our students and faculty represent, and has an impressive track record of his own as an innovator in Somerville,” he added.
“Somerville is lucky because we are so close to Harvard, but for government officials in farther-flung municipalities, it is not often feasible to partner with universities,” said Curtatone, who has welcomed legions of HKS faculty and students through the doors of Somerville city hall to help his administration implement such innovative governing strategies as performance management and activity-based budgeting. Curtatone, widely recognized as one of Massachusetts' leading government innovators for his use of data-driven management to stabilize city finances and strengthen the quality of municipal services in Somerville, added, “magic happens when you pair the creativity and energy of students with the experience of local leaders. The Field Lab did that in a way that has never been done before.”
Curtatone was critical in identifying potential partner cities for the Field Lab. “I found out about the Ash Center partnership by getting a phone call from my fellow mayor, Joe Curtatone,” recalled Fitchburg Mayor Lisa Wong, whose city was one of three inaugural Field Lab partner cities along with Chelsea and Lawrence. “There’s nothing like getting a phone call from a fellow mayor because we are always trying to steal good ideas from each other,” said Wong.
Cities were keen to team up with the Ash Center because the Field Lab was envisioned as more than a short-term internship or consultation project. “The Ash Center provided us with two students, and that was really important,” said Jim Barnes, the director of Community Development for the city of Lawrence. While Lawrence has and continues to work with a variety of student groups from other institutions of higher education, what set the Field Lab apart according to Barnes was the Ash Center’s continued commitment to working with the city. “We’ve worked with student groups in the past, and the students have always been good in presenting ideas, but there have always been challenges with follow-through.”
At its heart, the Field Lab presented a unique opportunity for the roughly 30 HKS students enrolled in de Jong’s class to identify challenges relating to data capacity, design, and implementation. “Each student was tasked with thinking intentionally about how those cities could better bring data together, collaborate, and then monitor their progress around problem properties,” said Sarah Allin, a Field Lab summer fellow and Winston-Salem, North Carolina, native who earned her MPP this year from HKS.
The challenge that many students faced was that Fitchburg, Chelsea, and Lawrence all capture data related to problem properties, but that they did so with varying degrees of technological sophistication. “What I’ve particularly seen in a lot of cities is they all track data on some level, but they’re on spreadsheets across departments — and those spreadsheets don’t necessarily talk to one another,” said Allin, who worked with de Jong in all three Field Lab partner cities.
In addition to understanding how cities harnessed data on problem properties, much of which comes from reports from different municipal agencies such as health or building inspections, 911 calls, or tax filings, students also had to navigate what Allin calls the “human aspects of innovation.” Getting the spreadsheets to talk to one another can be a far less daunting task than convincing city employees to use the spreadsheet or tablet in the first place.
“Fostering innovation in cities is more than just building an app or some other tool — it’s about building a culture that embraces innovation from the top down,” said de Jong. “If the mayor or department head isn’t interested in the data, then the inspector examining properties in the field won’t be inclined to adopt new practices. That can often be the hardest part.”
Fitchburg is a long way from Uttara Gharpure’s hometown of Mumbai, India’s booming commercial capital and home to some of the country’s largest and most dynamic companies. Gharpure, an HKS ‘15 MPA/ID, was a private-sector consultant before arriving at the Kennedy School. “I was really interested in moving into government work, and this was the perfect opportunity not just to learn, but also to implement as I was learning.” Gharpure chose to spend her summer in Fitchburg largely because of Mayor Lisa’s Wong’s energy and willingness to embrace new solutions to the challenges of governance in the city. “She spoke about Fitchburg and what she’d done there, and it was really inspiring,” said Gharpure. “I really wanted to come here and learn, and see how they were dealing with the problems that they had.”
Working with Liz Murphy, Fitchburg’s director of Housing and Development, Gharpure helped implement a tool designed by the Field Lab for the city’s Neighborhood Improvement and Code Enforcement Committee, a coordinating body bringing together different city departments all working with problem properties. Students helped build a Google-based collection system to integrate various data streams collected by city departments ranging from Excel spreadsheets to paper forms. “Integrating the different department’s information has been one of the biggest challenges that we’ve had trying to work together. Each of us has different systems, and they were very much separate systems,” said Murphy.
Of course, building a tool to better manage and integrate data from city departments is only half the challenge; Gharpure had to convince her colleagues to actually use it. “Our work wasn’t just technical, it was political. It was adaptive. We had to do a lot of work understanding the stakeholders, thinking about who we had to convince,” added Gharpure. That political work seems to be paying off, as inspectors, code enforcers, and others in Fitchburg have embraced the new tool and started carrying tablets as well as their time-tested clipboards and pens when they make the rounds through the city’s neighborhoods. “The tools that the Harvard students have created have been really successful, and we’ve been really glad to have them,” said Murphy. “We’ve already seen how the tools can work, and everyone has had a chance to get comfortable with them now.”
For many Boston residents, Chelsea is simply known as a densely packed community of rooftops viewed from above as they pass over the city while crossing the Tobin Bridge. At 1.8 square miles, Chelsea may be the commonwealth’s smallest geographical city, but it is also Massachusetts’ second most dense, with an estimated 35,000 residents and a large and diverse immigrant population calling the city sandwiched between the Chelsea and Mystic Rivers home.
“All of our neighborhoods are very compact,” said Bob Boulrice, the Chelsea City Treasurer, who as the city’s tax collector knows that often when a tax payment is missed, it is a sign of a deeper problem with a particular property. “Many of them are fragile. All it would take would be for one property to become difficult to impact the entire neighborhood.”
Given its density, improving ways to predict which buildings were at risk of turning into problem properties was a key goal for Chelsea. “I think the strategy has been oftentimes reactive because the way the city works is addressing a problem through complaints or through calls to the police department,” said Karina Baba, HKS MPA/ID ‘15, who served as a Field Lab summer fellow in Chelsea. Baba, a native of Brazil, previously worked for the World Bank in Washington, DC, and has a strong interest in understanding how technology and data can tackle public policy problems. “It is a way to see how we can improve public services and help people feel better about their cities.”
Baba and her Field Lab colleagues set out to design a predictive tool that would incorporate different sets of data from the city’s various departments. “The city generates tons of data. The problem is it’s housed in a lot of different places and used by departments that have their own separate jurisdictions,” said Boulrice. Integrating this data, Baba worked to build and refine the tool’s capacity to “analyze the risk in each property and measure the risk of that property becoming problematic.” Finally, the tool developed by the Field Lab for Chelsea had a performance management component that allows the departmental managers to better monitor key indicators that are linked to the city’s social goals.
“The great thing about the relationship with Harvard is that up to now, we would deal with problems post-facto,” Boulrice added. “We would deal with them once they already became a problem: once the police were called for service, once I was unable to collect taxes, once the Inspectional Services Department had an inspection problem with it, once the Public Works Department had a trash problem with it. A problem property became identified once it was a problem. The tremendous thing about the tool we’ve gotten through Harvard is that we can anticipate.”
“The mortgage crisis hit Lawrence fast and hard,” said Barnes, the Lawrence community development chief. “One or two of our census tracts had the highest incidence of foreclosure in the commonwealth of Massachusetts.” For Lawrence, a historic mill city endowed with an impressive number of industrial-era mill and factory buildings, but also struggling with underinvestment in residential neighborhoods, problem properties were a priority for the city’s mayor, Dan Rivera. “There are kids that are growing up in neighborhoods where the buildings have been dilapidated or abandoned for decades, and they grew up around these properties. We thought this is one of the things we have to change if we really want to change,” said Rivera.
Rivera, Barnes, and their team knew the city’s problems well, but as Rivera put it, “the value we saw [in the Field Lab] is a fresh set of eyes – they’re looking at the problem differently.” That fresh set of eyes would include Emily Jones, a Dedham, Massachusetts native and HKS MPP ’15, who previously served with the Peace Corps in Togo, West Africa. Jones, a Field Lab summer fellow working with Barnes in the community development department understood that Lawrence, much like Fitchburg and Chelsea, was hamstrung by overlapping data collection systems that allowed little cross-departmental data-sharing and collaboration. “We have a lot of city employees who are using data...but they’re siloed, so you don’t necessarily have people communicating that data with each other all the time,” said Jones.
For Lawrence, prioritizing responses to problem properties was a key goal of its collaboration with the Field Lab. “When you’re dealing with 200–300 properties that are in some level of physical problem status, you really need to know where to begin,” Barnes said. The Field Lab team, working to meet this need for the city of Lawrence developed a tool that allowed departments to visualize data spatially. “Looking at the properties within a certain neighborhood that are distressed and mapping them, we created a whole database of priority properties,” Jones chimed in.
“It’s exciting to work in Lawrence because people are thinking outside the box and really trying to not just have this bureaucratic mindset,” added Jones. “Mayor Rivera likes to say ‘don’t think like a bureaucrat.’”
Mapping the Future
“Forget Washington. Forget Boston. Come work at the local level,” implores Lawrence’s Rivera. “It really is where the rubber meets the road. If you’re really looking at the biggest place where government impacts people’s lives, it is in the local level.”
Increasing numbers of Kennedy School students and graduates it seems are heeding Rivera’s exhortations to think local. “So I came to the Kennedy School because...I wanted to make meaningful contributions to the communities where I’ve lived,” said the Field Lab’s Allin. “And so courses like this, that put you directly working with city government and city leaders, and trying to figure out how to bring people together around a common problem or cause, like we have here with problem properties, are an invaluable tool that teaches you how to get in and get your hands dirty.”
Allin’s reflections on her time as a Field Lab fellow brings smiles to the faces of the Ash Center’s de jong and Saich. “This was a big experiment for us,” said Saich. “Ash and our partners throughout the Kennedy School committed tremendous resources to making the Field Lab a reality, and I think it has really paid off.”
While de Jong and the Field Lab team continue to work with the original partner cities, sending students throughout the academic year back to city halls in Fitchburg, Chelsea, and Lawrence to monitor the implementation of each city’s respective tool, there are plans to double the number of both partner cities and Kennedy School students enrolled in the class. The next cohort of Field Lab students will build on last year’s work and deepen the project’s engagement with the cities by delving deeper into municipal operations and additional policy innovations, according to de Jong.
“There is a tremendous demand from our students for meaningful experiential learning opportunities,” said de Jong. “And there is also a huge appetite from cities throughout the region to harness the potential of our students. I hope we will be able to meet the demands of both.”