Event Recap

Boston Public Schools’ Transportation Challenge Brings Data to Buses

This year, we are partnering with the BPS Experience Lab, the education segment of New Urban Mechanics. This work has focused on visualizing data on student time on buses – length of trip, frequency of use, and conveying this information to headmasters through a dashboard using Power BI.  Through that work (and some recent Globe articles), we learned that 10% of the BPS budget is spent on Transportation. And as identified by the BPS Long Term Financial Planning Initiative and the 10 Big Ideas to Unlock Resources for Student Success, addressing these transportation costs can free up funds to invest in student success. 

BPS is hosting a challenge to better leverage technology to improve routes and bell times with the ultimate goal of reducing transportation costs. In TCE, we sit at the intersection of government, industry and non-profits and this kind of challenge is a terrific use of the data science capacity of the private sector to enable the public sector to better serve constituents and students.    

We are proud to welcome John Hanlon and Will Eger as guest bloggers to tell us more about this challenge. 

— Aimee Sprung, Civic Engagement Manager at Microsoft New England

Last Saturday, over fifty technologists, academics, and transportation industry leaders braved an early Spring snowstorm (only in Boston…) to join us to kick off the first-ever Boston Public Schools (BPS) Transportation Challenge — a data science competition, open to the public, aimed at improving Boston Public Schools’ bus routes and equitably and efficiently balancing our school start times.  We are excited that this innovative public-private hackathon will help us reach — as BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang put it — “a technical solution to a technical problem, using data science to transform our district” in a way that provides the best outcomes for students and families.  We are hopeful that this solution will come from one of the groups in attendance, including students from Northeastern, MIT, BU and Harvard, or from industry powerhouses like FedEx and Uber, but it could just as likely come from someone reading this blog! So… (shameless plug) if you have a knack for solving these kinds of problems then please roll up your sleeves with us and hack away!

The event helped remind us of a number of things. First, as our panelist Andy Rotherham — co-founder of Bellwether consulting — pointed out, “solving school district transportation problems is incredibly hard.” But as John’s remarks highlighted, it’s incredibly important not just for BPS but for Boston as a whole. Reducing the 45,000 miles our buses drive every day wouldn’t just allow us to reinvest in schools, it would also dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. Rebalancing our school start times could potentially free up funds for investment in the classroom while establishing school schedules that work better for families.

The event also illuminated the evolution of our bus routing system, something that is still a work in progress. Mike Hughes, the Assistant Director of BPS Transportation, reminded us of this when he said during the event’s panel discussion: “When Boston Public Schools began creating bus routes in the 1970s, we unrolled large and detailed maps of the city and used push-pins to mark bus stops and connected them with multi-colored string to form unique routes.” Needless to say, our routing and fleet management has evolved dramatically since then. Today, our 650 buses drive  45,000 miles a day and serve 25,000 riders at 231 public, charter, and Parochial schools.

Technology has played an increasing role in planning these routes. Push-pins and strings have been replaced by routing software and digital maps. However, our software still can’t solve this puzzle without placing a significant burden on our excellent drivers, who often have to operate on  inefficient routes, or on our talented transportation staff, who need to troubleshoot and fine-tune the computer-generated routes each summer.

And why is that such an issue? As research into the Traveling Salesman Problem has found, as the number of stops increases the permutations of possible routes grows on factorially (n! – that is, possible permutations increase faster than exponential growth). Therefore calculating the optimal solution by brute force becomes impractical after about 20 stops. And we have 5,000 unique stops, at which our buses stop about 20,000 times per day (the same stops often serve multiple buses).

Things get even more complicated when you factor in the many “rules of the road” that we have to consider when routing. These rules establishing ride-time maximums, bus-stop placement rules, and so on, quickly make this problem nearly impossible to solve.

But there’s hope! With the tremendous advances in digital mapping, the rebirth of the Traveling Salesman problem in academic circles, and the sheer growth in computing power, we believe that now is the time to try to solve this historically unsolvable problem. We think that there just might be someone out there who can develop an algorithm that creates a more optimal solution to both routes and school start times.

As we think about our wish list, we know that this algorithm must be adaptable. We want to better understand the true costs of our various policy choices regarding walk to stop distances, ride times, and student assignment. Given the interconnectedness of our system, we’ve learned that seemingly small changes can snowball into large cost changes. What we want in the end is a tool that not only reliably automates efficient bus routes but also acts as a calculator of sorts, quickly and agilely determining the system-wide impact or cost of various policy scenarios.

Lastly, this is a technical challenge – but one with a very real human component. For 25,000 students, their school day begins when they step on the bus. Therefore this challenge isn’t just about improving efficiency. It is also about ensuring that our students reach schools safely and on time. It is about ensuring that schools start and end at times that work for more families. It is about reinvesting in our schools.

We hope to see your entry in the our routing challenge – make sure you don’t miss the 4/30 deadline and visit our website to learn more!

John Hanlon has served as the Chief of Operations for Boston Public Schools since July of 2015. Prior to becoming COO, John worked for the City of Boston as the Commissioner of Property and Construction Management where he oversaw the management, maintenance, and operations of City Hall and other municipal facilities across Boston. He previously served as Chief Operating Officer for Scholar Athletes, a nonprofit that supports public high school athletes and was the longtime Executive Director at the Dorchester Educational Enrichment Program, a nonprofit that offers mentoring services for middle-school youths. John is a proud Boston Latin School graduate and Dorchester resident, where he lives with his wife and four children. He holds an MBA from Duke University and a BA in journalism from Boston University.

Will Eger is a Strategic Project Manager in Finance for Boston Public Schools, where he works on developing and implementing the district’s Long Term Financial Plan. Prior to this he was in Parthenon’s education practice and was a high school math teacher in Philadelphia. He has written on education for The Atlantic, Ed Week, the Huffington Post, and Higher Education in Review as well as a full length book on the Tea Party. He has an A.B. from Harvard College and a M.S.Ed from the University of Pennsylvania.

Microsoft New England Team NERDs Out at Generation Citizen Trivia for Changemakers

Being in Cambridge for ten years, we know just as well as any local that we’re housed in an area with some of the top minds in the world. With world-class hospitals, universities, politicians, industry leaders, and more surrounding us, it can sometimes be daunting to acknowledge how much intelligence is in every corner of the city.

Generation Citizen, a national organization (and Microsoft partner) that works to inspire civic participation and empower students through civic education, has recognized this bout of intellect and is working to use it for good. For the past four years, our local Generation Citizen (GC) chapter in Massachusetts has utilized this “intelligence problem” at an annual Trivia for Changemakers night. GC’s Trivia for Changemakers brings together teams from Boston industries, pitting them against each other in a night of trivia, where the winners claim the coveted ChangeMaker’s cup.

All proceeds from Trivia For ChangeMakers support Generation Citizen (GC), a 501(c)(3) education nonprofit serving over 3,000 students annually in Boston, Malden, Cambridge, Arlington, Melrose, Lowell, Brockton. GC provides action civics programming in which youth lead community change projects and develop the skills, knowledge, and motivation to become lifelong active citizens. The result is passionate, responsible civic participation that will revive our democracy and the Greater Boston community.

This year, as in years past, Microsoft employees at Microsoft New England R&D Center jumped at the opportunity to participate in GC’s Trivia for Changemakers. Alongside companies like OpenView, Trip Advisor, Bain Capital and ActBlue, Microsoft team members Aimee Sprung, Shannon Felton Spence, Christopher Scranton, Kavitha Scranton, Maggie Schmidt, Ken Danilla and Eric Sprung took on the challenge. Together, they tackled “common sense” questions like “Who is the current president of the Boston City Council?” (Michelle Wu), identified photos of lesser-known presidents, and dove head-first into challenging questions like What former NBA champion and all-star served in the Senate for 18 years and later ran for President? (Bill Bradley). And to our delightful surprise… our team won!

Thank you to Generation Citizen, OpenView, Trip Advisor, Bain Capital and ActBlue, and our amazing team for granting us this year’s bragging rights. See you next year!

Recap: #CivicTechBos — Impact of New Media on Civic Initiatives

While social media began as a way for friends to connect online, its uses have transcended far beyond that original intent. Social media has become a tool for activists, reporters, and unheard populations to connect together and spark new change. And with it, new media has developed on the digital and social spheres to rapidly transform the way civic initiatives take place.

Last night, we hosted our quarterly #CivicTechBos Conversations in Civic Innovation with Venture Cafe, with a focus on how the rapid growth of new media has transformed civic initiatives.

Speakers included:

Miss the conversation? We’ve gathered some highlights from last night’s event on Twitter Moments to keep you up to speed. Join us at our next event this summer!

Recap — #DigiGirlzRI Inspires High School Girls to Pursue Tech Careers

On Friday, March 17, hundreds of high school girls from Rhode Island gathered at the New England Institute of Technology for a day of all things tech. From media production workshops to 3D Paint tutorials from the Microsoft Store to inspiring speeches by Governor Gina Raimondo, it’s safe to say the event sparked the beginning of several computer science careers.

“Girls and women are half of the world’s population,” Raimondo said to a room packed with DigiGirlz. “They are half of the world’s brains, problem-solvers, leaders. This world cannot solve problems unless they are at the table. That’s why I started programs like CS4RI, partnering with Microsoft and other leaders to offer computer science in every Rhode Island school.”

Backed by Microsoft New England, Computer Science for Rhode Island (CS4RI) is one of the strongest statewide computer science initiatives in the country. Their goal is to have CS taught in every Rhode Island public school by December 2017.

“Digital skills are an increasingly necessary component of success in the workforce—and that applies to women as much as it does to men,” Raimondo said. “Being surrounded by so many young women with such potential at DigiGirlz filled me with optimism, pride and excitement for Rhode Island’s future.”

The fervor from the young women was palpable that day, and behind doors with signs that read “DigiGirlz: No Boys Allowed,” eyes were wide with curiosity. Microsoft Store staff had the girls bringing their imagination to life with 3D Paint, a new program that will be publicly available soon. Meghan Martinez, LTC Alyce Pagliarini and Julie Rinehart led a cybersecurity session, giving the girls valuable advice on how to stay safe online. The five other sessions involved digital media, mechanical engineering, Adobe Photoshop, Unity Program, and Multimedia Web Design.

After lunch, the girls learned about how they could #MakeWhatsNext and brand themselves online with Boston-based social media agency Metter Media. The social media session ended with a slew of giveaways, including the grand prize: a Microsoft Surface. The #DigiGirlzRI hashtag went wild all day long as the girls entered the contests by taking selfies and sharing their #MakeWhatsNext stories.

“The mission of DigiGirlz to provide middle and high school girls an opportunity to explore careers in technology is very important. As a society, we need to break the mold that STEM jobs are ‘jobs for boys’,” said Dr. Douglas H. Sherman, Senior Vice President and Provost at the New England Institute of Technology. “With the U.S. population being more than 50% female, we need more girls to study technology and to prepare themselves for the many high tech jobs that are or will become available as the baby boomers begin to retire.”

Our next DigiGirlz Day will be in Burlington, MA at our new Sales & Technology Center on Friday, April 28. View more photos from the event below!

#Recap: Boston Area Research Initiative’s 2017 Spring Conference

How is the City of Boston using data to improve its residents’ experience?

Last week, the Boston Area Research Initiative, or BARI, hosted its annual Spring Conference, centered around the theme “Data-Driven Research, Policy, & Practice: Lessons from Boston, for Boston.” Over two days, the conference explored existing work with Boston civic data, a look ahead at the future of data, and possibilities for idea-sharing.

The conference culminated in a data visualization screen-share, where graduate students showcased examples of uses for Boston crime data. These visualizations incorporated crime categorization, neighborhood crime statistics, demographics, and beyond to exemplify the range of approaches one can take to public, open data. We were honored to contribute Microsoft Surface devices to help these students show off their exceptional work.

Miss out on last week’s conference? Catch up with BARI’s pre-recorded session videos here.

Top tweets from the conference (using #BostonData):

Women in Data Science Conference & Pre-Event @NERD: “Hacking Bias Ideation”

On February 2, the Microsoft New England Research & Development (NERD) Center hosted and sponsored the “Hacking Bias & Discrimination Ideation Session,” a precursor to the Harvard-MIT chapter of the Women in Data Science Conference.

This six-hour event was designed to tackle the presence of bias in data science models and algorithms through discussion and brainstorming of the following topics:

  1. Gender Bias in Word Embeddings:  http://www.wordbias.org/
  2. Identifying Gender Bias in Performance Reviews
  3. Neuroinformatics Research Group Understanding Response Bias
  4. Bias in ML algorithms applied to healthcare
  5. Bias in Law Enforcement Predictions
  6. Consumer Protections in a Digital Age
  7. Hiring and Selection Models
  8. Who Has Political Power and How Do You Measure It?

If you’d like to attend an upcoming Hacking Bias and Discrimination event, please consider:

The following day, more than 200 participants attended the Women in Data Science Conference held at NERD. Cathy Chute, Executive Director of the Harvard Institute for Applied Computational Science, and Elizabeth Sikorovsky, Executive Director of the MIT Institute for Data, Systems, and Society, delivered the opening remarks, followed by Elizabeth Bruce, Microsoft’s University Relations Lead, who presented a summary of the pre-event outcomes. Our very own Jennifer Chayes, Managing Director of Microsoft Research NE & NYC, delivered the keynote presentation, followed by talks from Microsoft Researcher Jennifer Listgarten, MIT professors, and data science industry professionals. Click Here for the conference agenda, abstracts and slides.

A recap video, via Zac Carpman:

RECAP: #CivicTechBos — Broadband Equity

What’s the importance of broadband equity?

Last night, our latest Conversation in Civic Innovation (#CivicTechBos) explored new technologies in broadband, ways to make internet accessible, and the importance behind it all.

Speakers included:

Miss out on our event? Catch up with us on Twitter Moments (below):

RECAP: Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s 2017 State of the City Address

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Last night, our Technology & Civic Engagement team in New England had the wonderful honor of being invited to  Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s 2017 State of the City Address at Symphony Hall in Boston. Together with city leaders, fellow constituents, and the Mayor himself, we celebrated Boston’s successes and growth in the past year, and looked forward to successes in 2017.

A look at the night, in tweets:

Read Mayor Walsh’s full State of the City Address here.

Looking Back at Computer Science Education Week 2016

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Last week, we joined a revolution as Computer Science Education Week (CSEdWeek) launched worldwide, inspiring students to incorporate CS education into their daily lives. We celebrated by sharing stories like David Delmar’s Resilient Coders, uplifting others through the power of education, and by participating in Hour of Code events throughout the New England area.

Meanwhile, our community engaged on the same level, hosting Hour of Code events at Boston Public Schools and beyond. We’re thrilled to see our neighbors committed to the future of education, honoring the importance of computer science for all.

A look at local celebrations of CSEdWeek:

Find out more about #hourofcode here: hourofcode.com/us.

Innovation Reigns at the 2016 MassChallenge Awards

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Photo: MassChallenge

Each year, we’re thrilled to support MassChallenge, the most startup-friendly accelerator on the planet, as it gathers its 128-startup cohort and cultivates support and collaboration throughout the startup ecosystem. This year, we supported five Civic Innovation Scholars, and watched with excitement as these startups — and their peers — worked to create great things in the startup community.

Last Wednesday, leaders, supporters, and fans of the startup community joined MassChallenge for its final awards ceremony of 2016, where over $1 million were awarded to the top startups in this year’s cohort. This year’s winners can be found here.

We’d like to extend our sincerest thanks to MassChallenge for including us in such a wonderful venture — we can’t wait to work with the 2017 cohort!

Some of the top tweets from this year’s MassChallenge Awards (#MCAwards16):