Metro, Politics, Featured Column, Column

Moneyball Management: How Numbers Can Help Fix Boston City Hall

Nobody could have expected that Domino’s Pizza would play a major role in governing the city of Boston.

Daniel Koh ate a lot of the pizza as a student at Harvard, and was fascinated by the company’s online tracking system—which outlines every step of the delivery process, from when the pizza is put in the oven to the moment it is delivered.

Last year, the 29-year-old Koh entered as Boston’s new Chief of Staff and was immediately faced with a number of complaints about filing for permits in the city. The system was a mess. A permit request typically wasn’t answered for three months. Koh thought back to his days of ordering Domino’s at Harvard as a possible solution to the problem. He created a Domino’s Pizza tracker that outlines all the steps related to registering for a permit in the city. What was surprising is that it worked—big time. The idea reduced permit wait times by 25 percent and eliminated a four-month backlog in the system.

“I joke that permitting has never been easier in the city all as a result as Domino’s Pizza,” Koh said to a group of 20 students as a part of lunch hosted by the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics on Tuesday.

Back in January, I wrote a column about how to make Boston more appealing to new college graduates—encouraging a conversation between students, local bar owners, and city officials. After meeting Dan Koh, I am confident that our generation will be better represented at City Hall.

At just 30 years old, Koh is an ambassador for college students and the 20-somethings living in Boston. What is special about him is that he is using technology and statistics to attack some of the biggest problems in the city. His love of numbers and data stems from his favorite book, Moneyball, and now Koh is using data analytics to usher in a new style of management to Boston—making a notoriously old city appear young again.

One of Koh’s strengths is that he has worked in a variety of fields, and his path to City Hall highlights a number of stops along the way. After taking a sabermetrics course in his junior year at Harvard, Koh became inspired by numbers. He created a report that argued Manny Ramirez was the most clutch hitter in the history of baseball and submitted it to 32 professional teams. He got 32 rejection letters. But his career in baseball wasn’t finished. Koh worked in Labor Relations for Major League Baseball—researching which teams should pay up for relief pitchers with four to five years of experience.

Koh later decided to go back to Harvard for business school, and worked in the private sector, including jobs in consulting and business relations. Through a program at Harvard he was able to serve as an advisor to former mayor Thomas M. Menino, gaining some initial experience in politics before joining Huffington Post as Arianna Huffington’s chief of staff, keeping the 700-person news organization running smoothly from a business and media standpoint. To add to his extensive resume, Koh was named to the 2013 “30 under 30” list by Forbes.

Now, Koh uses his intertwined experiences in the private sector and media in his everyday role as a key advisor to Mayor Martin J. Walsh, WCAS ’09. With Koh’s ambitious drive for success, the surprisingly young leader is helping usher in a new wave of data in the Walsh era of Boston’s history.

If you walk into Marty Walsh’s office, you will see four screens that display the key metrics of the city, all in real time. This is new in the Walsh administration. City data is now updated daily, as opposed to quarterly in the years of Menino’s reign. Koh and Walsh expect the data to be there everyday, and they use it to solve some of the problems across the city.

“If we don’t have the data, we don’t know how well we are serving our constituents,” Koh said.

One of the screens displays how Koh tracks snow removal in Boston. In an Uber-like system, each snowplow sends a GPS signal to a large server once every minute. The locations of some 500 snowplows are presented on a screen that maps out all 850 miles of the city. Another screen tracks which of the 16 Boston neighborhoods Walsh has visited over the past month, and the others meticulously monitor trash pickup and housing inspections across the city.

Koh has also instituted two cellphone apps that are receiving great feedback from people across the city. “Citizens Connect” was created by the mayor’s office, and allows users to take pictures of any potholes, damaged signs, or graffiti they see. The software then finds their location and will send a photo of the completed project to the users. Boston was also the first of 10 inaugural cities to partner with Google’s Waze app to improve traffic flow. Currently, there are more than 400,000 Waze users in the Boston area, and the app allows the city to share information on road closures.

With this software, Koh is planning to perform a study of the Green Line—looking at how to make the system more efficient by switching stoplights to green as trains go through intersections, which Koh argues could shorten Green Line commutes by up to 20 percent.

Looking forward, Koh and the rest of the Walsh administration are constantly under the spotlight for a lack of transparency with the city’s partnership with Boston 2024. Olympic Games frequently generate cost overruns and put a city in debt, and we are all still wondering how we can pay for the summer games that could cost up to $9 billion. If Koh wants to set us all straight, he should use his analytical skills to prove to the public that these games can be privately financed.

For now, Koh will continue to work in what he calls “the greatest city in the world.” He will still get up each day at 6 a.m. and report directly to Mayor Walsh. But I’m sure with such an extensive background at just 30 years old, the young leader will be in Boston for many years to come.

Let’s see what he can do in the next 30.

Featured Image by Alex Stanley / Heights Staff

March 19, 2015