Alumni Spotlight: Stefanie Costa Leabo '10, Chief Data Officer, City of Boston [Video]
Stefanie Costa Leabo knew early on that she wanted to be involved in government work, not as a politician per se but as a civil servant.
“Data doesn't tell the entire story but it can be a really useful tool in the toolbox to make sure what you're doing is leading you on the right track” said Costa Leabo ‘10, chief data officer for the City of Boston, and UMass political science and history alumna. “It's really important to increase access to data and make sure people have the information that their own programs are generating."
As the head of Boston’s Analytics Team, it is Costa Leabo’s job to use data to deliver better outcomes for constituents, improve internal processes, and assist with the deployment of new technologies for the city and residents alike.
Data analytics continues to emerge as a resource that can help major cities like Boston measure the effectiveness and efficiency of legislation and public services. But cities in general still have a long way to go in terms of accessibility, equity, and private-public partnerships.
In this role I'm in meetings with key city leaders throughout the day to understand what their challenges are, what they are trying to accomplish, and how data can help them support that mission.
“It is tempting to write off the inclusive rhetoric of the smart city as mere corporate hype,” wrote Burcu Baykurt, assistant professor of urban futures and communication, in a recent essay. “Prioritizing wiring the city as thoroughly as possible and skipping over difficult, yet essential, public conversations about surveillance, power, and collective rights to privacy runs the risk of further exacerbating existing divides.”
Boston laid the groundwork for a dynamic tech-based culture more than five years ago and has since become a national leader in data-driven municipal operations. To get a better look at the intersection of civic policy and data, we spoke with Costa Leabo about her work, her goals, and the skills she learned at UMass that continue to help her today.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Stefanie, what does the chief data officer do?
I oversee the city's central data organization and the citywide Analytics Team. We're really here to help the city use data along with process improvement and different tools and technology to improve our services; to deliver better services to our constituents and make city operations more efficient; and generally to change the culture around data in city hall, to get people more comfortable with data to help make their decisions.
Can you give us examples of what you mean?
If you look at the history of the analytics team, we're just now celebrating five years—a pretty big milestone here in 2020. I've had the opportunity to be here for just about all of the team's history and so it's meant different things at different times.
A lot of what we do is automating access to data to present it back to those constituents or departments so we can see what their operations look like and be able to make decisions based on hard facts rather than gut intuition. Data doesn't tell the entire story but it can be a really useful tool in the toolbox to make sure what you're doing is leading you on the right track and a lot of the big initiatives that the city is trying to accomplish in housing, in transportation, there are so many data points that help us evaluate the effectiveness of our policies and understand what's going on on the ground in the city.
What does a typical day look like, if such a thing exists?
I lead the Analytics Team which is a group of about 20 individuals and we really cut across a wide range of roles and responsibilities. We house the city's performance management program which works with departments to help them identify their goals and develop key metrics to be able to measure progress against those goals. We run the city's open data portal, which allows us to publish data publicly and make that available to constituents, students, researchers, it's a way for folks to see the same data we're using everyday internally and understand what's going on here in Boston. We do geospatial data work, general business intelligence, and run-of-the-mill analytics: analyzing data to see what trends there are and what inferences we can draw about whether the services we're delivering are as best as they can be.
In terms of my day to day, in this role I'm in meetings with key city leaders throughout the day to understand what their challenges are, what they are trying to accomplish, and how data can help them support that mission. We're really a support team here, we're not the ones out front, but we're here to support any of the city departments with the information that they need to be able to do their jobs effectively.
Let’s take a step back and talk about your time at UMass Amherst. Did you enroll at UMass with a declared major in political science?
You're testing my memory. I definitely went in as a declared political science major; history might have come afterwards. I definitely knew I wanted to study political science, though.
Politics, policy, government, plus history were some of my favorite courses when I was in high school and so [political science was] just a natural major for me to take on.
There were a lot of really great classes in the political science department on American politics. I remember taking a really great class on Congress, and a really great class on women in politics and non-profit institutions and how they play a role in politics and government.
What kind of skills did you learn as an undergraduate that you kept through grad school and your career?
One of the really great things I had the opportunity to do when I was at UMass, thanks to the engagement and attention that I got from the faculty, was to be able to take a PhD-level quantitative methods class in the political science department. I got to sit in and really get exposure to what a PhD program in political science was about and what an introductory quantitative methods course was like at the graduate level; I had taken some statistics and econ and things like that, but this was really my first major exposure to econometrics and the graduate-level work. That gave me a really good sense of what a PhD program was going to be like. I was in the process of applying for PhD programs at the time based on the encouragement of some of the faculty at UMass and other Five Colleges. It was a nice test for me to say Can I do this? Do I want to do this? and I think it really gave me a leg up in terms of starting at my program [at The George Washington University] the following year.
What projects are you most proud of?
One that I was actually assigned on my first day as an analyst here with the city was what eventually became CityScore. That was an innovative performance management initiative we launched in 2016 to basically create a new way of presenting performance indicators and KPIs to the mayor and key city leaders to help make it easier to digest information in a short amount of time.
Related: Shantel Palacio '11 Produces "Million Dollar Block," a Documentary on Housing, Education & Criminal Justice in Brooklyn
The mayor has maybe a few minutes to himself during the day with which he can look through the dashboards in his office, so we really wanted to put something together that made it quick and easy to see where the city is doing well where it is falling behind. This has led to other really interesting engagements with departments including one with our emergency medical services (EMS) department that resulted in the creation of new community assistance teams which are basically a way for EMS to respond to certain types of incidents in key areas of the city to help residents who are at the nexus of homelessness, mental health, and addiction.
What kind of data initiatives is the Analytics Team working on now?
We have a few main focus areas as a team right now: in transportation, housing, and administration and finance. We’re working with all the different departments involved in trying to make housing more affordable in Boston, making sure we do everything we can to reduce evictions and work on homelessness.
In transportation there's just a ton going on in that space; there's traffic congestion, there's all sorts of new micro-mobility, new transportation modes that are emerging; It's a really fascinating area where we're working alongside the private sector trying to figure out how do we manage all this activity that's happening on the streets and these emerging industries that are popping up overnight in some cases.
And then with our administration and finance cabinet, we're trying to streamline internal operations. It's not necessarily the sexiest stuff that the public would be super interested in but the better we are at hiring, budgeting, and understanding our contracts and procurement, the better able we are to deliver on all the services the city provides.