BARI’s Spring Conference: A Reflection from Co-Director Dan O’Brien


First, I want to thank everyone who participated in BARI’s Spring Conference, “Data-Driven Research, Policy, & Practice: Lessons from Boston, for Boston,” because it would not have been possible without you. I have had a few days (and a snow storm) to reflect on what lessons we in fact learned over the day-and-a-half of panels, workshops, and keynotes.

Talking with my co-directors Rob and Chris, with Sam (who masterfully managed the whole thing), and with some other members of the BARI community, I think there are two things that stood out. The first was that people—a lot of people—are actually doing this work. You all are using data in various novel and creative ways, collaborating across institutions and sectors, and finding mutually beneficial outcomes that help us to both better understand and serve the city. As Nancy Hill (Harvard Graduate School of Education), one of BARI’s original champions and a member of our Advisory Council, said to me, “It was great to see people taking ownership of this conference.” This was very different from past conferences where BARI’s goal was to convince people that such projects could be fruitful. Instead, it felt like we were learning from everyone else in the community just how this work is actually realized.

The second thing of note was the broad range of topics. The conference covered everything that might matter to the city, from pollution to gentrification, from education to public health, and, of course, discussions of open data and models of collaboration. Ben Levine, our Thursday keynote, commented particularly on this to me. This is noteworthy because Ben is the executive director of the MetroLab Network and has a detailed knowledge of city-university projects in 40 different cities. He pointed out that the groundswell of energy here in Boston produced a diversity of projects that he felt few if any city in the nation could match.

This has led me to wonder, however, how does this work? How does a conference that features such a wide-ranging set of topics find coherence? I think there are two answers. The first is in the title of the conference: data and methodology are a unifying challenge and opportunity across all the domains of urban science and policy. We are all faced with the prospect of modern digital data and technology and are exploring it together. Thus, the lessons from one project are applicable to others, whether or not the specific questions are the same.

The second is more aspirational. I believe that this need to communicate about the data, and the widespread collaboration that has followed, has opened up an opportunity for a holistic view of the city. It is both natural and convenient to divide society into its components, to study and manage education, public health, crime, transportation, and the other domains independently, but they all intersect. High school students take public transit. Crime in a neighborhood can create stress that leads to mental health issues. Gentrification alters the local context and thereby the environment that previous residents experience, for good and for bad. As we learn from each other’s projects, we become informed enough to be able to take on these questions that have rested in the cracks between our respective disciplines.

As an academic, I find the prospect of considering the city holistically intellectually exciting, but I am as energized by the enthusiasm with which the public sector has embraced the same sorts of advances. In some ways, they were even more provocative. Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, argued that the “data-driven” approach referenced in the conference title might need to give way to “science-driven” policy, nodding to the fact that data on its own does not provide any automatic answers. Similarly, Curt Savoie from Mass DoIT presented a progressive model from Open Data to Open Science to Open Knowledge, urging us as a community to push through to the latter two steps. It is unique to think about a city and state that are dedicated to the value of science, and a local science that is dedicated to producing public good.

Again, I want to thank all those who joined us for their contributions to these conversations. They showed again why Boston is at the forefront of this work. I know it has me energized as I return to my own projects with fresh eyes, and I hope others feel the same. We look forward to seeing you all at the next one.


Dan O’Brien
Co-Director, Boston Area Research Initiative


Published On: March 16, 2017 |
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