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Motion-Activated Pothole Sensors ... In Your Phone

Motion-Activated Pothole Sensors ... In Your Phone
Miguel Tremblay

Boston is getting serious about attacking potholes. How serious? This serious:

This Terminator-vision-looking readout is a data capture from Boston's new pothole-snitching app, Street Bump. Running on an Android platform, the program is designed to make reporting the city's legion of asphalt abscesses as easy as turning on your phone. Just don't put that phone in your pocket while the app is running, or it could register the movement as a pothole, too.

There are scads of pothole apps out there: Pothole Radar pulls in the power of crowdsourcing to alert you where nearby holes are; FixMyStreet takes reports of holes and sends them directly to British city councils; SeeClickFix allows urban dwellers to report holes as well as graffiti, cracked pavement, illegal posters and other blight. What makes Street Bump handy is it doesn't require a driver to divert attention from the road to send a text or call an agency about yawning road divots. It chugs along on autopilot by exploiting two features in the Android phone, the accelerometers and the GPS.

When you turn the app on, it presents you with three circles representing acceleration on the axises of left/right, up/down and toward/away. Hit the "record" button and the circles take on different colors, indicating they're recording the movement of the vehicle. When a pothole violently jostles your ride, the app logs the location of the presumed hole and later, when you arrive at your destination, you can upload the entire recording to Boston work crews.

The app's boosters at the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (the agency behind Citizens Connect iPhone) still have a few bugs to work out – for instance, teaching the thing about all the non-pothole bumps in the road, such as sewer grates and speed bumps (although a few drivers might love to see the latter paved over, as well). And it sucks up a ton of battery juice, necessitating a cigarette-lighter power adapter for longer trips.

A cadre of road inspectors are putting the app through testing right now, carrying it around while doing their day-to-day work. "Based on a visual inspection, it seems to be really quite accurate," says Nigel Jacob, a co-chair at the mayor's office of urban mechanics. "We should have a live system ready for public use in late spring or early summer."

It can't be deployed soon enough. With 19,000 potholes patched in an average year, the consequence of frequent freezes and thawings toward late winter, Boston could use all the help it can get in the endless war against road erosion. The way the city attacks potholes today is by 1) waiting for commuters to report them, and 2) sending public-works crews out to drive aimlessly in search of holes. With 800 miles of street in the city, this two-pronged approach can take a while to produce results – idle time filled with the cacophonous music of tires ripping and axles cracking.

The city is currently testing new algorithms to make the app sensitive enough that it can detect wrinkles and divots before they become gravel-spewing monsters -- sort of like a PreCrime force for the road. If you're curious how Street Bump works, you can download a prototype for free here.

Photo of a pothole by Miguel Tremblay.

John Metcalfe is a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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