City governments are increasingly relying on digital technology to gather data from citizens. In San Francisco, residents can contact the city on Twitter to report potholes and graffiti. The CitySourced app lets people around the world report issues in their cities (i.e. illegal trash dumping, graffiti, etc.), as does SeeClickFix. But every solution out there requires residents to take action—snap a picture, send a Tweet, write a complaint.
The Street Bump app—a collaboration between the city of Boston, The New Urban Mechanics and crowdsourcing platform Innocentive—is for the lazy among us. The app, which is set to be released publicly for Bostonians in the coming months, uses a smart phone’s accelerometer and GPS to find and automatically report potholes to the city.
Last year, the city of Boston teamed up with Innocentive in the hopes that the crowdsourcing platform could improve its app. Armed with a $25,000 prize, the city sought an algorithm to sift through a data stream of user-reported information to determine the location and severity of a pothole. Boston ultimately settled on three top solutions, which were all integrated into the app.
Here’s how it works: A driver opens up the app, which will only be available on Android phones for the foreseeable future. The phone’s accelerometer detects when a bump is hit, while the GPS determines location. The information is sent off into a larger data stream of information from Street Bump users. When enough people hit a big bump in the same spot, the app recognizes it as a pothole.
One of the Innocentive "solvers," Professor Edward Aboufadel at Grand Valley State University, spent eight weeks working with a small group of students on improving the app. A mathematics professor, Aboufadel figured out, for example, how to make the accelerometer work in the app correctly even when the phone isn’t sitting flat. "If the phone is flat, gravity is pulling down on the phone, and you can get measurements of 10 meters per second squared. If it’s sitting funny, the numbers are rotated. You have to adjust data as if the phone was sitting flat," he explains.
Street Bump is currently being tested by municipal workers. There’s a ways to go before it’s ready for public use. One problem is that all accelerometers are different." Accelerometers on Android devices vary widely in terms of accuracy," says Nigel Jacob, a spokesman for the city of Boston. "So far our favorites are HTC and Samsung. Part of the challenge is trying to figure out how we normalize across the different devices."
The app is also a battery killer, which could turn off good samaritans who want to keep the city informed of potholes. And the city is still thinking up ways to gamify the app so that users are more interested in running it.
Nonetheless, Street Bump is attracting attention from outside the city. "We’ve gotten hundreds of requests from other cities wanting to partner with us on Street Bump. The goal was always to make this a platform for collaboration across cities," says Jacob.
This is just the first step for accelerometer and GPS technology in city government apps. Jacob imagines that a future version of Street Bump tailored to wheelchair users could record the quality of curb cuts—the curb ramps that enable wheelchair users to get on sidewalks—so that city workers know which ones need repair. Eventually, the app could guide a person from point A to B using the least jarring curb cuts.
"These phones are covered in sensors," says Jacob. There’s a lot of stuff that I think can be done."