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.
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.