App detects potholes, alerts Boston city officials

Associated Press Modified: July 20, 2012 at 2:31 am •  Published: July 20, 2012
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BOSTON (AP) — The next time your car hits a pothole, a new technology could help you immediately tell someone who can do something about it.

Boston officials are testing an app called Street Bump that allows drivers to automatically report the road hazards to the city as soon as they hear that unfortunate "thud," with their smartphones doing all the work.

The app's developers say their work has already sparked interest from other cities in the U.S., Europe, Africa and elsewhere that are imagining other ways to harness the technology.

Before they even start their trip, drivers using Street Bump fire up the app, then set their smartphones either on the dashboard or in a cup holder. The app takes care of the rest, using the phone's accelerometer — a motion-detector — to sense when a bump is hit. GPS records the location, and the phone transmits it to a remote servers hosted by Amazon Inc.'s Web services division.

The system filters out things like manhole covers and speed bump using a series of algorithms — including one that can tell if the initial motion is up over a speed bump, as opposed to down into a pothole. If at least three people hit a bump in the same spot, the system recognizes it as a pothole.

As in many northern cities, potholes are a real problem for Boston, where crews patch about 19,000 of them a year following the annual freeze-thaw cycle, according to Matthew Mayrl, chief of staff in the city's public works department.

"So you can imagine that driving 806 miles of roadway and getting an accurate count of where every pothole is a gigantic task," he said.

City officials hope the app might eventually allow them to save money by creating a real-time map of potholes that need to be fixed and eliminating the need to send out city trucks or contract an engineering company to troll hundreds of miles of roadways looking for damage.

"What this technology allows us to do — because we imagine dozens and hundreds and possibly thousands of people using it — it essentially creates a new way for people to donate their data in solving public-good challenges," said Nigel Jacob, co-chairman of the Boston Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics, which manages the project.

Street Bump is different from Boston's first app, Citizen Connect, which required users to actively send a text of tweet, visit a website or call a 24-hour hotline to report a pothole or other nuisances. Other cities, including Honolulu, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio, have encouraged residents to report potholes using Facebook, Twitter, or special apps that allow residents to request city services using their smartphones.



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