Civic Engagement and Custodianship

I attended an interesting discussion today with Dan O’Brien, Northeastern Professor of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, who also directs the Boston Area Research Initiative (BARI).

BARI has collected numerous datasets related to Boston: 311 calls and 911 calls; event listings and ticket sales from ArtsBoston, property tax assessment records, data on bicycle accidents, and more. You can even access the data online here:

O’Brien discussed a number of projects he was interested in exploring with his work, but I was most struck by his work using data from 311 – Boston’s hotline for requesting city services – as an indicator of civic engagement.

Through the 311 system a person might notify the city of a burnt-out street lamp, a pothole, or any number of other issues.

This creates a dataset which can measure what O’Brien calls custodianship – essentially citizen actions to improve or repair a community good.

This civic indicator has typically been challenging to measure. As O’Brien notes in a 2013 paper,” custodianship entails the co-incidence of an ‘issue’ and someone who moves to address it. Although some such events might be regular, like an individual who sweeps the front walk daily, they will typically be rare.”

However, 311 data are starting to change that, with the added benefit that – at least in Boston – users register to use the system, making it possible to “aggregate cases for each registered user, permitting analyses that examine and compare patterns of custodianship across individuals.”

In his work so far, O’Brien has found that custodianship through the 311 system is “a rare act” – most users only reported 1-2 cases within the 15-month window. Of course, the 311 system only captures some portion of “custodial acts,” so it’s entirely possible that a low frequency of reports does not indicate low custodianship.

(Also possible: Boston is perfect and few requests for improvement are needed.)

Perhaps most interestingly, O’Brien has found that “Most individuals take responsibility for a narrow geographical range surrounding their homes.” This could be a simple indicator that people are more likely to see a problem in an area the frequent, but it could also indicate that people feel more custodianship over their immediate neighborhood.

This work is just the beginning of a really interesting exploration of the relationship between civic engagement, custodianship, and 311 calls, but with cities’ growing interest in collecting resident data, there will certainly be more great work to come.


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