Boston is pothole city. So much so that the question, “Why are there so many potholes in Boston’s streets?” is a FAQ on the city’s “pothole page“.
The answer is that “coastal Boston area cities and towns experience extensive freeze/thaw cycles. You can expect to see more potholes in the winter and spring, following periods of cold temperatures and rain or snow,” according to the site.
But the solution may may lie in the hands of citizens armed with smartphones.
Boston officials have recently launched a smart phone application, developed through crowd-sourcing, that takes advantage of smartphone technology to help deal with the city’s ubiquitous potholes.
The app, called Street Bump, uses a smart phone’s accelerometer – a built-in motion sensor that detects changes in the device’s movement relative to its current position – and its global positioning system to locate potholes and get them repaired more quickly than ever before.
When a vehicle hits a hole in the road, Street Bump sends a signal to a database, noting the location of the car and the size of the pothole it crosses. The data can then be analyzed to identify and address road conditions around Boston.
“Simply by driving our streets and running this app, our Public Works Department will be getting information it can use to both dispatch repair crews and prepare long-term capital plans,” said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino.
In addition, anyone can download the app free of charge, giving civic-minded Boston drivers the ability to use their smart phones to locate potholes and electronically alert city officials.
Street Bump was initially built the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, working with researchers from the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Santa Fe Complex, a scientific research center in Santa Fe, N.M.
However, the prototype was flawed. While it could detect road bumps, it treated them all equally; it couldn’t distinguish among a pothole, a manhole, bridge pavement or some other irregularity in the road’s surface.
As a result, Boston officials last year announced that with funding from Liberty Mutual Insurance, they would partner with InnoCentive Inc. and use InnoCentive’s open innovation crowd-sourcing platform to try to refine the application.
Boston researchers “had developed the concept of Street Bump and took it to a point where they could really take it no further,” Steve Bonadio, vice president of marketing for InnoCentive, told Breaking Gov. “It wasn’t the most accurate thing in the world. There were a lot of false positives.”
In April 2011 InnoCentive posted a $25,000 Street Bump challenge on its Web site, specifically seeking an algorithm that could accurately discern the severity of potholes while weeding out other road anomalies. More than 700 “solvers” participated in the challenge and 19 solutions were submitted for consideration.
Ultimately, officials selected three solutions, including submissions by Edward Aboufadel, a professor of mathematics at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., and by solvers at Sprout & Co., a non-profit education and research organization devoted to science in Somerville, Mass. Sprout & Co. released a short video of its team in action.
The third winner requested anonymity, Bonadio said. The three winners divided the $25,000 prize money.
Boston researchers developed the final Street Bump algorithm in collaboration with the three winners, incorporating elements from all three solutions, Bonadio said.
Street Bump for the Apple iPhone is presently available for free download from the Apple App Store. An Android version is in the works, Bonadio said.
Dwayne Spradin, chief executive officer of InnoCentive, said Street Bump represents “a compelling example of private-public partnerships and how governments will deliver services in the future.”
According to the mayor’s office, Boston has already received hundreds of requests for more information about Street Bump from cities in Africa, Australia, Europe and across the U.S.