With Boston app, potholes practically report themselves

Motorists' phones detect jolts automatically; $25G to the developer who can perfect it

Cities around the country have taken advantage of mobile computing to improve programs for reporting such problems as potholes and graffiti.

The city of Boston is doing one better, developing a pothole-reporting application that doesn’t require people to do anything, other than drive. But first, it needs for a little help from developers to perfect the app.

The city developed its SpeedBump app for devices running the Android operating system in February and, after identifying some shortcomings, put out the call for help from app developers, reports MIT’s Technology Review.

The application keeps track of an Android device via its Global Positioning System receiver and uses the device’s accelerometer to detect jolts, Technology Review reported. If other phones are detecting jolts in the same location, a pothole in need of repair has been found.

However, a city official told Technology Review that the app is creating too many false positives — such as mistaking train tracks for a pothole — so the city is asking for developer input.

And if you have the right idea, you don’t have to submit it out of the goodness of your heart — the city is offering $25,000 via the crowdsourcing innovation site Innocentive.com for an algorithm that works.

If they iron out the kinks, SpeedBump would represent a new step in the evolution of civic apps.

Cities started decades ago with call-in lines people could use to report problems. That evolved into websites people could go to and file a complaint. But with the growth of mobile computing, applications increasingly allow people to do their reporting on the spot.

Boston’s Citizens Connect, for example, lets iPhone and Android users take a picture of a pothole or graffito and submit it as they see it. Other cities, such as Grand Rapids, Mich., and San Jose, Calif.,  have similar apps.

Philadelphia has an app, Philly WatchDog, for people with an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to report examples of government waste, fraud and abuse when the see it, according to the Philadelphia Business Journal.

And the San Ramon Valley, Calif., Fire Protection District has a free iPhone app that notifies people trained in CPR if someone nearby might be having a heart attack.

As effective as they can be, all of those applications require user intervention. SpeedBump would move the ball forward, essentially using people’s phones as sensors to identify where road repairs are needed, and possibly opening the door to similar automated mobile apps.

About the Author

Kevin McCaney is editor of Defense Systems. Follow him on Twitter: @KevinMcCaney.

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