CXO

Curt Savoie: Principal data scientist for the City of Boston. Data philosopher. Wikipedia spelunker.

Boston's Curt Savoie tells TechRepublic about using data to get to know Bostonians, and putting that data back in their hands.

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Image: Curt Savoie

Four years ago, Curt Savoie was talking with someone in the then-Boston mayor's administration about data. This guy said perhaps the worst thing you could say to a data scientist: "The mayor doesn't care about data, he cares about people."

Savoie is Boston's principal data scientist, so that was a bummer. But the more he thought about it, the more he disagreed with that whiff of mutual exclusivity. Data is about people, he thought.

"The data is these bread crumbs, these little bits and pieces, this digital archive of interactions with each other, with the government, with the world around us, and it's all of these little traces of that life in the city," Savoie said.

The skill that turns a data set into something more than an assemblage of numbers and figures is the ability to discern a story from it. And that's exactly what Savoie does.

For example, a streetlight outage can have greater implications than a burned out bulb. Savoie found that when a streetlight is out, especially for a longer period of time, property crimes in the area tend to increase — reports roll in for broken windows, graffiti, and stolen cars.

The street light division has ten days to fix a light — and that's interesting, he said, because that increase in crime doesn't really start until about day 9 or 10.

"Here you have an expectation of work completion that actually probably had nothing to do with crime... but it was very close to the time a real-world problem might develop," he said.

Information like that can help inform the way a city operates.

Data can can also tell a story about the culture of a neighborhood and the way its residents think. He said the city often looks at the data it has in aggregate, so instead, he tried looking at it on a per capita basis.

When he started looking at the many neighborhoods in Boston, as different as they are in terms of size, socioeconomics, etc., he realized that the data wasn't just about, say, how many people report things like potholes or graffiti. It was actually about something broader.

"It becomes a measure of what those people care about the most," he said.

Different neighborhoods have entirely different concerns. When looking at the numbers of reports of gang-related activity, the neighborhoods with the highest number per capita were Charlestown and South Boston. That was interesting, he said, because over the years those two areas have become increasingly gentrified. They're not really "problematic" areas.

However, in the 70s and 80s, they were the center for gang-related activity.

"There's that kind of throw back to something there in the collective consciousness of that that neighborhood that makes people more interested in calling," he said.

Interest is a key word for Savoie. He's been with the city for just about seven years. Originally, he started as a web apps developer, but following the advice to "sit in the seat you want to sit in," he started playing around with data, and now he's the guy you'd talk to — or tweet at if you had a data-related request and inquiry.

He finds data fascinating and is helping to connect it with others who might as well.

On a day-to-day basis, he might work, in part, with press, or researchers, even students who have questions about the city's open data sets. (Sometimes that means a Harvard researcher in a suit gets to come in and meet the Chuck Taylor-sporting Savoie.)

Recently, Savoie's been involved with a Knight Foundation grant called Open Data to Open Knowledge. It's a partnership with the Boston Public Library to turn Boston's open data collection into a resource that's more accessible to the public.

The concept is inspired by a quote from the Open Data Foundation: "Open data becomes open knowledge when it is useful, usable, and used."

That means figuring out how to get data in the hands of researchers, data visualization folks, journalists, app developers — in other words, people.

And it's not just data about things like potholes. It's maps, budgets, documents — all going into some type of catalog. The reason it makes sense to work with the library is because they need to find that bridge that connects this information with those who might be looking for it.

"If only there were a professional class of people who do that! Wait a minute, there is, they're called librarians," he laughed.

There are lots of details to still work out — perhaps they'll offer data literacy courses to the public and create toolkits for reference librarians. One of big ideas here, though, is that you could start to have a quantified history of the city, information that anybody can access, that anybody can use to understand themselves, their neighborhood, their city better, he said.

It's not easy to undertake something like this. As is the case with government in general, resources can be an issue.

"We're not IBM, or SAP, or Microsoft. Microsoft could probably pay for our entire data project with money that's in Bill Gates' couch," he said.

Still, Savoie sees it as more of an opportunity to be creative and work with what they have. He's optimistic about the role data will play for government and for the public, especially as he sees new city data scientists crop up, and as he finds himself increasingly facing the public (like with the Knight Foundation grant) championing open data.

"Going from someone who is in the trenches and behind the scenes, crunching numbers... to [being] someone who is speaking at things and trying to inform the next wave, I think to me that is hugely important to how I approach things," he said. "I hope to add to the conversation on a national or international level, for the next people to take the ball and keep running. I think that's hugely defining for me, being able to contribute to that."

In his own words...

How do you unplug?

"I am obsessed with music, so I listen to a lot of music. A friend of mine once told me I have no musical shame. I will listen to a very wide range of things, so to me, good beer, some music — that sounds like a pretty good night on almost any occasion."

What's the last show you saw?

"The last show I saw was a couple of days ago, it was Wire, good classic post-punk. Best shows of all time? Gogol Bordello is really good, Arcade Fire has been really good. U2, even though I'm not really super into their music, I have to admit that their stage show is pretty solid. There's a lot of great bands out there, a lot of great music. I apply my curiosity with data to music — that sounds interesting, let's explore that. Sigur Ros, that might be a band that I might say has been one of the most incredible shows ever. It was like goosebumps for three hours."

If you could try a different career, what would it be?

"I'd probably go back and do my Ph.D and go into research and go back to the philosophy side. If paying the bills wasn't relevant, I'd become a lifelong student."

If there a social media account of website you read for fun?

"I do like Twitter a lot, I find Facebook an abomination. I'm definitely an internet junkie, but I'm all over the place. If I could pick one website that dear God, I'm glad it exists, it's Wikipedia. You go down a Wikipedia rabbit hole and you will learn so many things and go to so many places that you had no idea you would ever end up and I think that is just incredible. Yes, Wikipedia is not always 100% accurate and there's all those caveats, but the amount of basic information or where that can lead with a little bit of curiosity is fascinating."

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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