Hate Potholes? There's an App for That

Are city streets giving you a bumpy ride? The Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics has a solution for that. Download the Street Bump app, and your smartphone will report the location of every pothole you encounter while driving in Beantown.

Here in Minnesota, we describe our annual road maintenance cycle as five months of winter and seven months of road construction. That's not an exaggeration. Especially in the years when we go through several freeze-thaw cycles, the roads can get ugly. Water expands as it freezes, making any cracks and potholes bigger. Rinse and repeat a few times, and it's like driving on Swiss cheese.

I even have a favorite pothole that is on my usual route to the office, and I follow its lifecycle as it goes from patched to pothole every year. During the warmer months, the roadways are filled with workers sealing cracks and fixing potholes. Part of the cost of road maintenance is sending crews out to drive hundreds of miles of roadway looking for spots in need of patching or repair.

The city of Boston had a better idea. Rather than sending public works employees out on search-and-patch missions, it can dispatch a repair crew directly to a problem location. The program reduces fuel, labor, and other costs. Limited resources are allocated to the areas most in need of repair. Earlier notice allows earlier repair, preventing more extensive damage and more expensive repairs. Advance knowledge of problem locations can also allow for planning the most efficient routes for the crews to reach the most potholes in the shortest distance and least time.

Everybody wins.

However, the city faced some analytical challenges along the way. The app works by monitoring your smartphone's accelerometer, detecting the shock from a bump. But was that shock really a pothole? Maybe I dropped my phone, or maybe I'm jogging down the street and generating a false positive with each stride. What if you can't get the city to fix that pothole on your street? Take your smartphone out and jump up and down on it a few hundred times. Then sit back on your front porch with a glass of iced tea, and watch for the repair truck. (Yes, you just know some people will try something like that.)

How do we distinguish actual potholes from your crazy, jumping neighbor? To solve this problem, the city turned to crowdsourcing. USA Today reports that Boston offered $25,000 of prize money (donated by Liberty Mutual) to a network of 400,000 experts. Those who contributed to a solution would get a share of the money. According to the paper, this resulted in a series of algorithms that can detect the difference between a pothole and a speed bump and will not classify a location as a pothole until data from at least three people indicates a problem there. Maybe you can get all your neighbors to come out and jump on that pothole with you? Call it a pothole party (and please keep an eye out for traffic -- and the police).

As of this writing, the Street Bump website reports that 115,333 bumps have been detected. The maker of Street Bump, ConnectedBits, has a variety of Spot Reporter apps that let citizens alert local authorities about everything from graffiti to downed trees. Users can even include a picture of the problem along with the GPS coordinates. Several cities are already participating, including Baltimore, Chicago, Seattle, and New Orleans.

In what other creative ways might we use mobile technology to collect useful data?

And, by the way, even if Minneapolis starts using Street Bump, I'm still going to drive around those potholes. Maybe the app can update its algorithms to detect people swerving around hazards, instead of actually hitting them.

Mark Pitts, Data Scientist & Healthcare Executive

Mark Pitts is a data scientist and healthcare executive with more than 25 years of experience solving business problems with technology and analytics. He started programming at the age of 13 – writing his first program on paper because he didn't yet have a computer – and hasn't stopped since. Over the years, he's garnered advanced education and expertise in computing science and business domains, and has applied his multidisciplinary skillset in leading real-world implementations of enterprise resource planning, financial and business intelligence systems, and multimillion-dollar, greenfield development projects to solve enterprise-scale business challenges.

He ultimately progressed from the IT shop to the business, driving the financial performance of healthcare organizations in areas including managed care contracting, provider compensation, payment integrity, forecasting, clinical quality, medical billing, receivables management, and analytics. His innovative work has been recognized with a variety of awards, and his creations support benefits measured in billions of dollars.

In May 2013, Pitts will complete an additional graduate program at Texas A&M University, receiving a Master of Science in statistics with a dual emphasis in applied statistics and biostatistics. He undertook these studies with the recognition that advances in computing technology, the explosion of the electronically interconnected world, and advances in machine learning would combine to change the game, especially in healthcare. He has a passion for writing and public speaking, with a track record of highly rated appearances in a variety of venues, from business and executive conferences to technical and analytics conferences. He has been interviewed, quoted, and featured in a variety of print and online publications, and is currently developing a course designed to introduce business people to the power of data visualization and analytics to solve everyday business problems.

He is also developing a Website for advanced analytics and is incubating a book project that will gain more momentum post-graduation. Pitts is currently employed by a Fortune 25 company, and he lives in Minneapolis with his lovely (and patient) wife, their two teenagers, and four remarkably spoiled dogs. He is also still glowing – and is somewhat harder to live with – after Harvard Business Review declared that data scientist is the sexiest job of the 21st century. You can follow Pitts on Twitter @DatalyticSci.

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Re: Analytics to action
  • 12/28/2012 6:47:43 AM

It's still amazing to me the creative uses that are popping up for our devices. And as they are born, even more possiblities come up. Discovering potholes can lead to reporting them to officials. Officials could use the data for preparing budgets for repairs. Other cities can compare data, perhaps finding more efficient materials for road building, and on and on.

Analytics to action
  • 12/14/2012 10:59:40 AM

Now wouldn't it be great if it rated the severity sent high priority potholes to the appropraite city department and they responded with fixes!

Re: Money, money, money...
  • 12/12/2012 2:58:25 PM

True, its a little off that it has to go back down to non-road maintenance people to alert the authorities of all those potholes especially if they are not really new. However it is a good idea especially if the information is available publicly as it can help people make decisions on which routes have least potholes on the way to work. meanwhile the government will indeed be compelled by the glaring data to allocate more funds for repair.

Re: Liability
  • 12/12/2012 9:16:42 AM

@tinym Multiple blocked lanes during rush hour defnitely inconvenience more people. But a pothole can potentially damage a car that will not be able to move and so cause a backup in its lane. If it's not rush hour, though, people can usually maneuver around it, so they wouldn't mind so much. But the driver whose car is damaged would mind a great deal.

Re: Liability
  • 12/12/2012 9:07:45 AM

It seems crazy they would willingly block traffic after the deadline to get out of the way. Repeat offenders might feel the sting a bit more if they were passed over on future projects because they failed to stay out of the way. Which is worse, potholes or blocked lanes during rush hours?

Re: Liability
  • 12/12/2012 8:52:42 AM

@tinym well, it's a very big city that involves very big sums of money. In the case of construction, when they are getting multi-million dollar contracts, the feeling is that the fines have to be very substantial to have any impact in making the contractor think twice about blocking rush hour traffic.

Now we need a congested road app
  • 12/12/2012 8:13:33 AM

The pothole app sounds great but around here we're more in need of an app that tracks time sitting at traffic lights or slowing down for no apparent reason.  We're well below the frost line so pot holes are few and far between.  Our biggest issues are urban sprawl and new neighborhoods destroying traffic patterns because it would appear that no on considered how adding 100 houses might affect traffic on a single lane road.

Re: The road too-much traveled
  • 12/12/2012 7:50:05 AM

@Mark, I think we can take this as solid evidence that Chicago needs to do a better job of getting the word out that people can report potholes from a mobile app! I didn't see any sign of the offering on the main Chicago DOT page, at least. But I'm not surprised, either, that it's using Street Bump -- as it's generally pretty tech-savvy in its citizen outreach, etc. As to your advice, perhaps I will -- once I get that faster, more capable smartphone I have on my Christmas wish list. ;-)


Re: Liability
  • 12/11/2012 11:56:12 PM

@Ariella you're right, that fine seems huge. You guys have a rich history of rules and regulations just to keep order in the city...

Re: Money, money, money...
  • 12/11/2012 8:11:23 PM

@Mark: well the ice cream is excellent so I recommend two scoops on a waffle cone after a Roethlis-burger.  As for the data, I have always tried to teach my students that if you're trying to make a case to management, having hard data on your side is critical.  You can tell somebody that something's needed until you're blue in the face, but if you can show them it's needed based on facts, you might actually get somewhere.

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