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Boston, a community-based approach to enhance inclusive digital experiences for all


Since September 2023, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights (CC4DR) has counted a new US City, Boston, among its members. With more than 675,000 inhabitants, the city is the state capital of Massachusetts, located in the northeast of the United States. 

The Coalition was pleased to meet Santiago Garces, Chief Information Officer at Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology, who is working with his team to build a more equitable and just digital transformation. Boston is a very global city. Characterized by a very diverse population thanks to  Its geographical position on the Atlantic, the city is filled with people living and visiting from different parts of the world. Joining an international coalition was an opportunity for Boston to reflect its diversity. 

Boston saw in the Coalition an opportunity to connect with other cities working on the same topics. Building personal relationships between civil servants is a real asset to accelerate the learning process. Cities have a lot of lessons to share and to learn from, on initiatives that have worked and things that have not. As Santiago Garces says “Sometimes solving the same problem in different contexts allows you to learn things that you wouldn't be able to learn and to solve in the same context”. This aspect, according to him, is a real opportunity to be part of an international coalition. 


Putting user up front and ensuring their digital rights

According to Santiago Garces, the cornerstone of Boston’s Department of Innovation and Technology is to support and facilitate the interaction between their constituents and the city administration. Concretely, it means understanding the needs and the context of the people engaging in interactions with the city administration. “How are we going build the experiences that uphold those peoples’ dignity?” - Santiago Garces rhetorically asked. 

To do so, the department developed a strategic plan driving the department's mission and following the mayor’s vision. According to this strategic plan, the department is building technology to support other departments and agencies to make sure that technology is putting people up front. The first component of this vision is to respect residents’ human rights by being transparent regarding the meaning of interacting with the government regarding their privacy, security and experiences. The second component consists of making sure that the digitalisation of the interactions is inclusive: “We recognize that it is the persons in the most vulnerable positions who are the ones that would benefit the most from interacting with the government. They are also the ones that have the biggest barriers to accessing digital technology”. That is why Boston has been doing a lot of work in increasing accessibility and affordability through broadband, devices and digital skills. The city also invests in strengthening the accessibility for residents who might have different types of disability and inclusive languages, as required by being a very diverse city, with more than 11 languages officially recognized.

The Department of Innovation and Technology team put a dedicated stand in the city to engage in direct contact with citizens


Enabling 100% of citizens to participate in digital experiences

In the department where Santiago Garces is working, the goal is to get - or make a continuous effort - to have 100% of people able to participate in digital experiences that are convenient, accessible and secure. To achieve this objective, the city is developing initiatives in terms of privacy and transparency requirements, but also in broadband device accessibility, training and skills. In Boston, a lot of residents do not have access to the digital world, in particular elderly adults, immigrants and people who do not speak English as their first language. 

In 2020, 32,000 households did not have broadband access. Thanks to digital infrastructure investment, the number decreased to 14,000 households in 2022. To continue this positive trend, the city is benefiting from a federal affordability connectivity program, allowing 50,000 households to have free or affordable broadband.

Boston is also focusing on the environmental aspect of their digital rights strategy, as there are a lot of links between environment and equity. Climate change, as digital transformation, is impacting the most vulnerable communities who do not have the means to adapt to the regulations. For example, affordable housing is also the buildings still using oil for heating. The city is therefore trying to understand how to complement the needs of affordable housing and energetical renovations. 

On the contrary, social and environmental solutions can also require the same answer. Boston has recently started a new programme of computer refurbishment within the city, considering that computer production has a big environmental and social impact. After four years of utilization, the city is refurbishing its computers and giving them to low-income families. Such initiative is providing a social benefit by making devices accessible to low-income residents and is reducing the environmental impact of the devices by extending their lifetime.  


Supporting the interaction between people and administration, the example of gender-aware initiatives

As a first concrete initiative putting users upfront, the city started identifying the areas requiring changes both within the administration and the public interactions. Gender experience came out as a prior topic. A year ago, Boston released gender design and data guidelines for building more gender-aware experiences in the city. 

They engage with communities feeling that they have been misrepresented, harmed or put at risk by the city. Engaging with communities was essential to understand what aspects of services digitalisation have a high impact on users. For example, gathering information regarding gender in public services procedures is important for the city to understand where the disparities are, but it can also create barriers leading people to feel uncomfortable participating. Now, the guidelines stipulate that if a service does not require to ask for gender, the city will not ask about it - It is the case for marriage licenses for example - while still developing complementary strategies whenever the city wants to understand potential disparities. 

Boston was the first city in Massachusetts to develop such guidelines and to stop requiring gender in marriage certificates. The initiative was considered a success and led the state of Massachusetts to do the same. The city is taking a step further and is currently designing better gender-aware experiences throughout their employment process, i.e. ensuring that people can give the pronouns they want to use, and change their name and email addresses accordingly.

For Santiago Garces, “All these small ways that allow people to feel that they are represented and that they can express themselves in their daily life”. The gender guidelines were an important first step to developing a culture where they listen to residents, engage with communities and build designs and systems aligning with the type of human experiences the people living in Boston need to have. The city is planning to develop a similar initiative in the area of disability.

Digital Equity Event 


Sharing best practices to improve data and privacy policies

To develop better digital experiences for people with disabilities, the city started to share best practices with national and international cities that have already been working on the topic. Boston got in touch with Barcelona, Amsterdam, Bordeaux and Paris to take inspiration from their people-centred smart cities initiatives. Such knowledge sharing is particularly important to understand what problems occur in other cities and how they resolve them. 

Boston has also been engaged in knowledge sharing since they are developing data standards. The city reached out to European, Colombian but also US cities, such as Portland, to share insights regarding the use of open-source standards for data governance and privacy policy models. 

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