Nayeli Rodriguez is a new addition to the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working as the City of Boston’s first ever Technologist for the Public Realm. We recently sat down with Nayeli to talk about her work.
BARI: Can you start by talking a little bit about your background? I know that you came most recently from a city planning background, but you’ve done some work in the tech industry as well.
Nayeli Rodriguez: Absolutely! I actually started out in journalism. When I first graduated and began my career, I thought I was going to be a journalist, and I was working for a couple of different publications. A lot of my reporting was on social media and technology. Social media and technology was a very different place at that time. I started getting a little bit more exposure to some of the new companies and issues that were starting to be interesting. In 2010, which is when I graduated, journalism was not the greatest place to be working. Online journalism was still really finding its footing, and the new era of data science as journalism hadn’t fully burst out yet. So I pivoted. Now I think it would be very different, but all of the new media and data visualization in the journalism field hadn’t totally emerged yet. So I pivoted and started working for Google, which was a company that I had obviously already known about, but I learned a lot more about through some of my reporting and also just talking to different folks. I had never reported on Google directly, but just learned more about what they did.
BARI: Were you based in California at that time?
NR: No–I’ve actually only ever been to California once. I was working for Newsweek at that time, and Newsweek was sold while I was there. My editor said, “if I was 22 and I was working here, I would leave and go have an adventure. You should move to Paris!” And so that’s exactly what I did. I moved to Paris and I gave myself a year to freelance, still doing journalism stuff. And then I got a job at Google in the Paris office.
I worked for a very small team that did creative product design and product development, a lot of times working with other large advertisers that were Google’s clients to develop either new technologies or to experiment with, and really push the boundaries of, existing technologies. It was a pretty small team based in Paris, and we covered all of southeastern Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Russia out of that office. So I got exposure to a lot of different types of projects and a lot of different types of technology markets as well. I think was when I first started understanding technology from the perspective of the user, and from the perspective of the city. I would travel to cities in the Middle East and what they were ready for us to work on for them was very different from what we were working on for Paris or London.
It gave me a different perspective on the role of technology in day-to-day life as opposed to the way that it is now. Now we see technology as being embedded in every single thing that we do. And that definitely became more and more the case while I was working at Google. But I think previously I had not seen it as being such a part of every single thing that we do, and the way that we run a city or run a company or run a transportation network. That’s when I started getting really interested in urban planning. A lot of the projects I was working on also brought me in contact with the Google Street View and the Google Maps team. And so that was also helping me to understand the role of technology specifically in mapping and gathering data about a city. Through that, I became more interested in urban planning, from a technology perspective. So I left Google, and came back to the Boston area for planning school. I finished planning school with a job at Sasaki, which is a great urban planning and design firm in Watertown.
BARI: How long were you at Sasaki before moving over to the city?
NR: I was there for a little over a year.
BARI: It’s easy to see the natural progression from working as a planner to working for the city. Can you talk a little bit about what your expectations were when you were first coming into the job with New Urban Mechanics? Was there something you were looking to do more of when you made that transition?
NR: I wanted to be more involved in the actual implementation and day-to-day hard work of city planning. In my previous job at Google, I was often in a consulting role where we would be generating ideas but we were not necessarily around for their implementation. And the same thing was the case at Sasaki. I’m proud of the work we did at Sasaki, but we deliver our analysis and proposal, and then it’s on the city to actually see that through. I realized that I was interested in urban planning, not just because of the incredible creative opportunity that it presents to generate ideas for how you think the city can or should be working, but also in the context of working for the government to see those ideas through. I wanted to really work with communities to implement these ideas in the best way, to communicate how they’re working, to receive feedback and iterate as things are actually being built, and then to see the products of your work with other people to really be realized.
I had never totally worked in that context before. Working for the city in a planning capacity presents a really unique opportunity to see those ideas happen. Of course, it requires a much different timeline than working in tech, but that was a part of the job that really, really drew me to transitioning over to working for the city. Working for New Urban Mechanics in particular was interesting because they have this mandate to be more experimental and to work in a very interdisciplinary fashion, and to question and push in ways that are super unique for that team. At the same time, they are quite plugged in to the day-to-day operations of all the different departments in the city. So whether that’s transportation, public health, arts and culture, they’re very connected to the people involved in seeing that work done, while at the same time having a little bit more latitude to question and imagine.
Another big thing is that MONUM often refers to itself as a team that is allowed to fail, whereas a lot of city departments are really focused on the hard work of delivering quality services to constituents day-to-day. Obviously, that’s not a context where you want to have a lot of failure. But because MONUM has done really good work and built up a reputation for doing interesting things that actually work out even though they’re outside the box, we now have the permission to occasionally try things and absorb the occasional failure. The result is that other departments don’t have to be as tentative about taking a risk when they see that MONUM is able to make that failure meaningful in the rare instances that does occur.
BARI: One of the projects you’re working on is thinking about, if the city wanted to start putting up sensors around the city, how would they be useful to academics? What kind of data would you want to collect? I think that starting out with that kind of partnership of thinking through how this potential innovation could be useful to the most people is an interesting place to start from. Can you talk a little bit about that?
NR: The main thing that I’m here to do is to think through how technology can be useful to the city and its constituents in a lot of different contexts. That includes wanting to make sure that we have both a thoughtful process for deploying new technology, testing it, learning from it, and teaching people about it, and that we also have a thoughtful way of creating guidelines, precedents, and policies that can work in parallel with new technologies that we haven’t necessarily had to think about in that way before. As we are deploying new technologies and sorting through all the ways they can be meaningful to the largest number of people, I also spend a lot of time, in partnership with the Department of Innovation and Technology and our Policy team, thinking about what kind of guidelines we want to have in place as a city for how we treat and store the data, who gets to own it and how they can access it, and how we evaluate whether or not that data is being gathered in an equitable and transparent way. So it’s about both what we do and also how we bring people along in the conversation and really push forward the culture around the way that our constituents meaningfully engage with technology and data in their everyday lives.
BARI: Is thinking about sensors your primary project at the moment? What takes up most of your bandwidth?
NR: I spend most of my day either in conversation with various city departments, whether that’s Transportation, or Environment, or others, thinking about what the next thing is that we can use technology to help us understand better and plan for. And then if I’m not in conversation with them trying to understand what we’re going to do, and what we’re going to deploy, whether it’s sensors, or data, or partnering with third parties that gather data, then I am working with other people to think through, once we have this information, what’s the best way to treat it? What’s the best way to share it with academics so that it’s meaningful for their work, or share it with community groups so that it can help them advocate for their needs?
BARI: Are you at a point with any of that work where you have a concrete research question, or are you still figuring that out with different stakeholders?
NR: I think we have a lot of emerging research questions. I only started four months ago and I think that for the first probably three months, I was really in the mode of listening and wanting to just understand the lay of the land, what was already happening in various departments, and the relationship to technology and data sets and engagement around those two things. So it’s only been in the past six weeks or so that I have actually been moving into a mode of proposing and trying to get feedback on initial ideas about new things we could do, or improvements to what we’re already doing.
BARI: As you have started to work with a bunch of city departments, have there been any conversations that have been surprising or unexpected?
NR: Yeah, there have been a couple of things that have been, not necessarily surprising, but certainly interesting. One is that autonomous vehicles really dominate our conversation about what a “smart city” can be. I think that’s affected people’s vision of what the future is going to be, because that’s the technology that people think of when they think of the future of the city. It’s been somewhat surprising to hear that reaction, and it made me realize that a lot of the work that I’m going to be doing is really shifting people’s understanding of what technology is in the civic context, from more futuristic and high profile technologies like autonomous vehicles to things like pedestrian counters or adaptive stoplights. Those things are maybe not as headline grabbing, but they can really have a big impact on the way that day-to-day life works, and how a city looks and feels to the people in it, even though people might not be directly interacting with those technologies.
It’s my ambition that what Boston does in the smart city space helps us take a lot of things that we already do, like engage with residents and have community engagement processes, and learn from them so that we can plan and invest in the right way. I’m hopeful that technology, in addition to letting us manage, or plan for climate change, manage transportation, and plan the public realm in all the ways that we currently do, will also bring us closer to residents and constituents. Through technology, we’ll be able to make their voices and their needs that much more apparent and heard and represented. I think that technology is not just a way to optimize everything and make everything efficient (which I actually see as moving people further away from city operations), I really hope that technology actually brings the people who are our constituents and who use our city every day closer to the way that decisions are made. Especially decisions about the public realm and all the space that we share.
BARI: How do you define success in this job? What do you want to look back on having accomplished?
NR: I can say two things. One is being able to shift the culture in Boston to more awareness and engagement around some of these technology and data issues. My ambition is that one day people in every neighborhood have the same general awareness and understanding of the sensors and datasets that are gathered about the public realm as they do about something like a bus route. I don’t know all of the bus stops in the city, I don’t even know the roots of every single bus in the city or how many there are or where they all go. But I do know the ones that are important to my life. And I know that if changes were made for the bus that I take every single day, I would have a strong opinion about that. And I would be able to give informed and passionately held opinions about how it could be better. I hope that one day people have that same ability to respond and question and engage with data and technology issues that impact the public realm. That is more of a long term project.
The other thing would mean success is if I could see a deployment of technology take place at scale that would improve the ability of existing departments to do their work in a way that they feel has freed them up to deliver services either better or more quickly or just in a way that improves the quality of life for the residents. So whether that’s helping transportation planners, helping public works, helping public health or the Environment Department, I really hope that I can support a department-led initiative to gather meaningful data in the public realm in a way that they feel has had an impact on the way that they do their work day-to-day.
I think success will also mean that I’ve gotten to hear a lot of opinions and I have been able to incorporate some of the feedback that we’ve gotten into the way that we’re currently using technology. As I said, I’m four months into the job, and so I’ve had the chance to speak to some members of the public about how they think technology could help them in whatever need or challenge that they’re facing. But I hope that moving forward, I will be able to meaningfully, and hopefully measurably, represent those points of view in conversations that we have about which technologies we use, and how we use them. We’ve never had a Technologist for the Public Realm before, so people don’t necessarily know that there’s someone who is now performing that role.
BARI: Thinking again about the arc of your career, the transition from urban planner to New Urban Mechanics seems fairly straightforward. But would you say that more of your experience as a journalist or more of your experience as a Googler plays into this job more?
NR: I think first and foremost, I do draw on both my experience and my training as an urban planner. Before anything, this is a job that’s heavily grounded in the work of doing planning, design, and just thinking about the city. That also encompasses all the stuff that we’re doing around public engagement and really listening, so that we can understand how to plan the future in this kind of nebulous space around technology. That’s all planning work. After that, I do draw quite a bit on my journalistic experience for this position because I’m constantly asking questions and I’m also constantly trying to anticipate the larger meaning in the day-to-day stories that I hear from departments or from communities or from project managers and people who are doing work. There’s this constant zooming in and zooming out between what we’re doing today and what it all means and how it connects to where we want to be in 5, or 10, or 25 years.
BARI: Are there any projects you have deployed already that you want to highlight?
NR: Sure, one that I can mention is a form of signage we’re testing to improve transparency about technology in the public realm. Earlier, you asked what research questions we have. One of the research questions that I came into this job with was: how do we bring people into the conversation about data gathering and sensors that measure public spaces in some way? So, in March, we did an experiment in Kenmore Square where we created small, straightforward signage and placed it near two types of sensors in public space. One sensor was gathering visual data to gauge traffic conditions, and the other was a digital newsfeed that also measured pedestrian traffic. While neither sensor was something we thought passersby would necessarily be aware of, we still wanted to experiment with a way of drawing people’s attention to what kind of data is being gathered in the public realm, who is doing the data collection, and who can have access to that dataset. Of course, we also want to give folks the chance to tell us how they feel generally about data being collected in public space. It’s a lot to fit within a series of small signs, but we tried to do it!
The experiment was very small in scope but I’m hopeful we’ll be able to announce a slightly broader second round of the experiment in April. I’m also hoping people will share their thoughts on the signs and the way we’re communicating about technology, in addition to their thoughts on the sensors themselves (which are both private, third-party technologies that the City is aware of but doesn’t directly oversee)
BARI: That makes sense. There can be such a gulf between what a person who works for the city or in academia thinks about sensors and a person on the street who thinks, “I wonder why it looks like there’s a camera in that box?”
NR: Right. Or, is it even a camera at all? Or is it something totally new, we’re testing, like a sensor that measures the quality of light or air? And it’s on us to make it easy to understand and engage with.
BARI: Are those signs still up, or is that experiment over?
NR: They’re not still up, but I can show you a picture:
We’d love to have feedback on them because I want to pilot them more. But like everything, I’d rather move slightly more slowly and thoughtfully than the tech adage of “move fast and break things.” That doesn’t really work when you’re in a city context, and it’s people’s actual lives and infrastructure that you’re engaging with. Someone said recently, instead of “move fast and break things,” it’s more like “move thoughtfully and fix things.”
BARI: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us! How can people follow your or New Urban Mechanics’ work, or get in touch with you?
NR: They can check out our past and current projects on boston.gov/mechanics or follow us on Twitter @newurbanmechs. We’re always eager to hear from people and talk about ideas, questions, or new project ideas. This summer we’ll also be working on a short video series to demystify some of the sensors and data-gathering devices that you can already find on our city’s streets.