Street Bump fixes potholes one bump at a time

There are a number of apps out there for the civic-minded that allow users to inform their local government about potholes. One such app is called SeeClickFix; this app allows users to snap a shot of potholes on the road and send pictures to their local government in the hopes that they will do something about the hole.

The problem with apps like SeeClickFix is that they require the user to take action to fix the problem. Not many people are going to pull over to the side of the road, snap a shot of a pothole, and then continue about their day. Another issue with these apps is that they rely a lot on the individual to make the judgment call on the difference between a pothole or a bump in the road.

A location notification for pot holes. Images from and Graphic by Caitlin Lewis.

One city is trying to do something about it in a way that requires little to no effort on the part of users. The City of Boston is piloting an app called Street Bump.┬áThe idea behind this app is to allow the sensors in a user’s smartphone to do the job of reporting a pothole. Many smartphones have accelerometers, which sense a phone’s vertical movement. These sensors are intended to allow the phone to prepare for impact with hard surfaces. Street Bump plans on reappropriating the accelerometers, allowing the phone to plot GPS coordinates of where potholes are and send that information out to the local government.

The app was finished sometime in 2011, but there are some issues. The phones had no way to distinguish between railroad tracks and other bumps a car may come across on a daily commute and potholes. It gathered the data on everything, but it was just a giant jumble of unusable numbers. Discouraged by the unreadable data, the city, with the help of Liberty Mutual, who donated a $25,000 prize, launched a global competition for anyone who could create an equation to allow the app to distinguish a bump from a pothole.

The contest was a success and three winners were declared. The city is trying to implement their algorithms before launching the app later this year. While the algorithms were a success in allowing the phones to distinguish everyday jostling from potholes, the app still faces some obstacles. The accelerometers used in phones are not uniform; this means that there may be some phones that won’t be able to give the city any usable information. The app drains a phone’s battery, and in some cases cuts down the battery life of some phones to just three hours. This was a big problem since the city initially wanted the app to run in the background at all times. Since then, the city has revised its plans and only wants the user to launch the app when they are driving, giving them the choice of when their GPS coordinates are monitored. Those who use the app should not fear about misuse of the information. Each user is given an anonymous, randomly generated signature meaning that while the city may know where you are, it won’t know who you are.

This app, in the long run, will hopefully save the city money, allowing them to work on problems before they become a real issue. Street Bump is an interesting example of how technology, even passively, can be used for the good of those that use it. If this technology works well for Boston, it could be a real lifesaver for other large cities, allowing the local governments to act before small potholes turn into big issues.