Boston organizations develop advanced algorithm to address city challenges

Authors: Katya Abazajian and Kathy Pettit
Originally published in Urban Wire

By leveraging data and technology, a partnership of Boston organizations and local government leaders found a better way to connect young people to summer jobs.

In July 2015, Boston’s mayor announced an increase in funding for summer youth employment. Boston’s Department of Youth Employment and Engagement prepared to offer more jobs to young people, hoping to open long-term opportunities for high school students in disadvantaged neighborhoods…

But matching thousands of applicants to available jobs is challenging and time consuming. Boston’s Civic Tech and Data Collaborative (CTDC) provided a solution that not only sped up the matching process but also made more informed matches.

Here’s how they did it.

CTDC Boston is a partnership of two city departments, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (which is a longtime partner of the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership housed at the Urban Institute), Code for Boston, and other groups and is partially funded by BNY Mellon. Like the national Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, a partnership between NNIP, Living Cities, and Code for America supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur foundation, CTDC Boston aims to harness the power of data and technology to achieve social change.

Together, the CTDC Boston partners worked toward the city’s goals: increasing the number of summer youth jobs offered, streamlining the job-matching process, and making matches more effective, all of which requires significant social and technological knowledge to achieve.

In the project’s first phase, the Department of Youth Employment and Engagement reached out to young people to get their feedback on the city’s job-matching system, as outlined in a recent blog post from Living Cities.

Then, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council led development of the back-end job-matching algorithm. Using applicants’ survey responses, the open-source algorithm systematically matches youth to jobs based on their interests, proximity to transit, commute time, and job availability. The planning council also used its role as a local convener to manage the project’s progress and engage the government agencies and technologists that will implement the matching system.

In summer 2016, the algorithm was put to use for the first time to match applicants to jobs. In addition, CTDC Boston incorporated a new notification system via e-mail to replace the thousands of phone calls that city staff made annually. The changes have already saved hundreds of hours that youth employment staff can now devote to other youth services, and staff are hopeful about the process’s positive effects on the future of Boston’s youth.

While the first phase was being implemented, partners provided the planning council with feedback to inform improvements and new developments.

In the project’s next phase, Code for Boston will test user-friendly interfaces to improve how city employees and youth use the matching process. CTDC Boston will evaluate the quality of the new matching process by comparing manual matches with those made by the algorithm. And researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology will help evaluate whether the algorithm’s development helps longer-term outcomes, like graduation and employment rates, from the summer jobs program.

In addition to positive outcomes for Boston’s youth, CTDC Boston seeks to prove that incorporating partners across sectors builds long-term capacity beyond a single project and creates more effective results.

CTDC Boston has forged new trusted relationships and innovative ways of working together within their local civic tech and data ecosystem. Through this project, CTDC Boston will pave the way for civic tech and data communities around the country to help solve  pressing issues affecting  people in need.

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