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Using Open Data to Fix Boston’s Short-Term Rental Woes: Stefanie Costa Leabo

Stefanie Costa Leabo, Chief Data Officer for the City of Boston, shares how her team led an open data project to help manage the impact companies like AirBnB are having on the city’s property rental market

Short-term rental companies including AirBnB have transformed housing markets across the globe. But while many tourists and property owners have benefited from these services, they have also made life harder for long-term renters in some parts of the world.

As Stefanie Costa Leabo, Chief Data Officer for the City of Boston, reveals in this week’s episode of the Business of Data podcast, her team is playing a key role in managing this phenomenon in the city.

“In certain parts of the city, properties were being brought up by large developers and they were being run as almost de facto hotels,” Leabo recalls. “[That’s] problematic for a couple of reasons. One is that there’s a reason that hotels are regulated and have to hold certain licenses.”

“There are health and safety standards that we apply to businesses and those regulations are there for a reason,” she continues. “The second issue is that it was changing the character of neighborhoods and taking long-term housing out of the housing market.”

The city decided it needed to find the right balance between allowing some to generate an income from their spare rooms or properties and ensuring long-term property is available to rent for its residents.

So, it decided to set new regulations for short-term renters in 2018. Then, it enlisted Leabo and her team to deliver an ambitious open data project to assist with the enforcement of these new rules.

An Open Dataset for the Boston Property Market

Involving Boston’s data office in this project from the outset was pivotal to its success. Leabo’s team collaborated with other departments to evaluate what impact short-term rentals were having on Boston’s housing market. Then, it created a new open data portal that the legislation mandated.

“The first thing we needed to do was create a new datasetfrom scratch that would determine the eligibility of every single residential housing unit in the entire city,” Leabo says. “There were three different types of license. So, we had to be able to tell, ‘Is this unit eligible for each different type?’”

“We were brought in from day one and were able to be part of the policy discussion, be part of the implementation and enforcement team”

Stefanie Costa Leabo, Chief Data Officer, City of Boston

This project involved gathering data from at least six city departments including inspectional services, public works and non-emergency services hotline 311. These were then merged to create a unified short-term rental eligibility dataset.

“Many of these data sources had never been joined before,” Leabo notes. “At least, not at such scale.”

“The biggest challenge, that we both saw coming but also surprised us at times, was data quality,” she adds. “[When] working with data that is being managed by six or seven different departments, you have different levels of data quality [and] different levels of data standards, in some cases.

“So, we knew that joining this data together was going to be a challenge and needed to be done very thoughtfully and carefully.”

“The engineer who was working on this project happened to have a background in linguistics and was able to develop this really awesome name matching function,” she continues. “We’ve done a very successful job in reconciling all of those things so far.”

This new open dataset now plays a key role in the enforcement of the city’s new legislation, while providing people with transparency about how decisions are made about their properties.

“What was really great and effective about this effort was that we were brought in from day one,” Leabo concludes. “[We] were able to be part of the policy discussion, be part of the implementation and enforcement team and really consult with inspectional services and housing.”

Key Takeaways

  • Open data is transforming the public sector. Integrating public datasets and sharing them via open data portals can enable better and more transparent decision-making
  • Adopt a ‘data by design’ approach. Leabo credits being involved in the project at the policymaking stage as a key factor in the success of Boston’s short-term rental open data project
  • Data quality is a key challenge with public data. Matching datapoints that refer to the same things but have been input differently is essential for integrating public datasets successfully