It’s not your imagination: Boston’s potholes are out of control this year. Luckily, help is on the way. Street Bump — an app produced by the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics and software developer Connected Bits — aims to streamline the pothole reporting process. Users simply sign into the app, then place their smartphone in a cup holder or mount while they drive Boston’s roads. If the car hits a pothole, the app reports it, along with the location, to the city. By supplementing traditional reporting methods, like driver hotlines and road crew inspection, Boston hopes to fill more potholes more quickly and avoid the ire of drivers and their pricey damage claims.
Although the app has been available to iPhone users for nearly two years, Boston has yet to make a serious push for new sign-ups. This is because, according to Nigel Jacob, co-chair of the Office of New Urban Mechanics, “Street Bump is still very much in the testing phase.” Only 20-30 drivers routinely use the app. Still, its creators believe that Street Bump will help the city fix potholes more efficiently.
How Has Street Bump Improved Roads?
Because there are still a few kinks, Jacob declined to give exact statistics about Street Bump’s performance. However, it has already resulted in smoother roads for Bostonians in some surprising, and measurable, ways. Many of the bumps registered during tests turned out to be manhole covers and utility cuts, the uneven pavement left after utility crews make below-ground repairs. These are false-positives, but still a potential hazard for drivers. With this in mind, the city has repaired “a thousand or so utility cuts” in Jacob’s estimation, and is investigating ways to fix sunken manhole covers. Next
What Have Developers Learned About Street Bump?
While the city can make drivers’ rides smoother to a point, some bumps, like railroad ties and cobblestones, are unavoidable. Dave Mitchell, co-founder of Connected Bits, notes that testing has also allowed developers to designate geographical areas for the app to ignore.
In addition, some concerns about Street Bump’s release have proved to be unwarranted. Early on, members of the development team suggested that the gap in the number of city repairs made in higher-income areas and lower-income neighborhoods, with a smaller number of smartphone users, would only be exacerbated by the app. Jacob calls these worries “very much a guesstimate at this point,” particularly because city employees, who crisscross all of Boston’s roads while going about their jobs, form so many of the core users. “Since the system is designed for municipal workers as well as the public, I don’t think there’ll be a problem with coverage,” he said. Next
Where Does Street Bump Go From Here?
Street Bump’s creators hope that other cities in addition to Boston will adopt the app. Jacob reports that the office has had a flood of international inquiries about the app’s progress. Though it’s exciting, the buzz around Street Bump is also encouraging the Office of New Urban Mechanics and Connected Bits to be more cautious. “There’s a ton of interest in this approach, so there’s a lot of pressure to make sure the system is accurate,” Jacob said. “That’s why we’re spending longer on the testing phase.”
According to Mitchell, the current version of the app is ready to juggle data from multiple cities, but the level of false-positives is still too high. With help from machine-learning specialists at Northeastern University and Boston University, engineers are hoping to identify the unique “bump signatures” that separate potholes from other obstacles. They’re also hoping to find the correct level of reporting. “You want to feed the city likely candidates in a stream that doesn’t overwhelm them,” he said.
What’s the sweet spot? “We’re aiming for a 75% or greater success rate of identifying things that can get fixed, and that the false-positives get submitted back into the system and make it better,” Mitchell said. Next
When Will Bostonians Hear More?
So when will the testing phase be over? Jacob hopes the app will be ready for greater publicity in early fall.
“I have every confidence that our next round or two of tests will give us the insight we need to optimize the whole process,” Mitchell said.
In the meantime, “the system does seem to be sensitive enough and intelligent enough to find features in the road that need fixing,” Jacob said. Soon Boston drivers — and drivers elsewhere — can breathe a sigh of relief. Back to the beginning
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