Boston’s ‘What the Tech’ Series Offers A Field Guide to the Gadgets on Our Streets

A still from the City of Boston's 'What the Tech' video about automated bike counters. Courtesy of the City of Boston.
A still from the City of Boston's 'What the Tech' video about automated bike counters. Courtesy of the City of Boston.
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If a bureaucrat invited the citizenry to listen to a short lecture about about photocells, the light-detecting sensors that tell streetlights when it’s time to switch on of off, you might not expect many takers.

But at the end of November, the City of Boston did just that, with a two-minute clip that launched its new “What the Tech?” video series.

And thanks to slick production values and social media buzz, the videos are reaching and engaging a wide audience in Boston and beyond.

The “What the Tech?” videos feature Nayeli Rodriguez, Program Director for the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, and Jacob Wessel, Public Realm Manager for the Boston Transportation Department (BTD). Their colleague Kris Carter, Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, handles the behind-the-scenes editing and production work.

Last week, the same team followed up with a second episode about automated bicycle counters (whose outputs we’ve previously covered on StreetsblogMASS):

You can find the latest data from those bike counters and their human counterparts here.

In a recent videoconference, the three city employees told StreetsblogMASS that the idea for the series has been germinating for several years.

“We’d been having a conversation about making the city’s data collection more transparent, and how to be transparent about how we use technology in  public spaces,” said Rodriguez. “People should know what technologies are out there, and what they’re doing, but those conversations can be pretty boring. So this idea came out to do this series as a jumping-off point for those conversations.”

Carter elaborated: “Jacob ran a program on our team called Beta Blocks (“new approaches for community-led innovation in public spaces,” according to the project’s website on boston.gov), and through that we were trying to have constructive conversations about technology with community members, but it was really hard. So what we learned from that process informed and is showing up in this series: we’re trying to simplify things down to very specific, bite-sized topics, and making analogies for each piece to make it relatable.”

The three say that the reaction to the first two videos has been encouraging.

“Lots of people are watching it, which is fun,” said Wessel. “The thing that’s most interesting is how many city employees we collaborate with who are learning from them. The photocell video made a lot of people say ‘oh wow, I thought they were just on automatic timers,’ even though the people working in street lighting work right across the hallway from them.”

“Some people are reacting passionately and voicing their opinions, and we welcome that,” said Rodriguez. “Whether they’re feeling positively or negatively about it, the main point is to get more people talking about the use of technology in the public realm.”

If you have an idea or a question for a future “What the Tech” video, they want to hear from you: send questions or photos to newurbanmechanics@boston.gov to suggest topics.

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