xvii. Boston Street Bump


Interaction Type public -> government.
Trigger Event In 2012 Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that engaging the city’s citizens and their smartphones the city could take a more proactive approach to road maintenance
Domain Road Network Maintenance
Organisation Mayor’s office The City of Boston
Actors The City of Boston Roads and Public Infrastructure Division. The general public report the problems on the street. They benefit from the City of Boston carrying out repairs to these problems.
Data sets in use There are no specific datasets in use. Using the accelerometer and GPS devices on smartphones uses with the Street Bump application automatically report ‘bump’ or pothole information to the City of Boston. These reports are collected in a reports database.
Process The Street Bump application must be running (as a foreground) application on the client smartphone. The smartphone is left in a fixed position in a moving vehicle. When a bump or pothole is detected by the Street Bump application the geographical coordinates and other data are uploaded to the City of Boston Street Bump web service. The Roads and Public Infrastructure Division carefully monitor these reports. If a specific area receives many reports of a bump or pothole problem an engineer will physically examine that street location.
Feedback Users of the Street Bump application can gain points (“street cred”) for each pothole they assist in reporting which is subsequently fixed or repaired by the City engineers.
Goal To overcome the manual, antiquated method of reporting potholes from citizen complaints or manual survey by City inspectors.
Side effects Volunteers use the Street Bump mobile app to collect road condition data while they drive. The City of Boston then aggregates the data across all of the contributions to provide the city with real-time information to fix short-term problems (potholes) and plan long-term investments in road and street infrastructure.
Contact Point Information extracted from various websites


Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (MONUM) pilots experiments that offer the potential to improve radically the quality of City services. New technology – from smart phones to GPS – and a resurgent spirit of civic engagement have created increased opportunities for closer connection and communication between City government and its citizens. Partnering frequently with the Mayor’s Constituent Service Office, MONUM is piloting projects that leverage this new technology and civic spirit to deliver services that are more personal and citizen-driven.

Potholes are a recurring problem for the US road network. For example, over the first quarter of 2014 the City of Boston filled more than 10,000 potholes. The city of Boston is constantly working to maintain, repair, and upgrade its transportation infrastructure. To this end, contractors and public works crews are usually the ones who find potholes and other problems in our roadways. In parallel, a large percentage of the city’s residence has a smartphone and this creates the possibility for an army of volunteer pothole-spotters. Such efforts could draw lessons from a similar effort of the City of Boston BOS:311, which is a platform that helps residents and visitors improve City neighborhoods by reporting non-emergency issues. However with the Street Bump the goal is to automatically (i.e. passively) get the pothole reports. Street Bump project is based on the hypothesis that an app that allows users to collect and submit roadway data as they drive will improve the City’s ability to find and fix issues.


The development of the Street Bump took place through a series of experiments and improvement efforts. It started in 2011 where with the collaboration of Fabio Carrera and the Red Fish Group an alpha version was build. This phase confirmed that the use of smartphones could help sense road problems. However, the app couldn’t distinguish between potholes and other bumps or movement and gave too many false positives. To deal with this problem officials worked with Innocentive on a public challenge to refine the algorithm used to identify road issues. Innocentive hosted a contest to crowdsource the improvement of Street Bump, and Liberty Mutual donated $25,000 in prize money. Through the contest improved algorithms were developed and the newer version has incorporated these improved elements.

Now the app uses the accelerometers and the GPS of a smartphone and successfully detects many problems while keeping false positives under 10%. The City of Boston works with machine intelligence experts at Boston University to improve the app’s ability to isolate actual defects. The City of Boston plans to open source the Street Bump code so that it can easily be adopted by other cities.


Using the motion-sensing capabilities of smart phones, volunteers who download Boston’s Street Bump app automatically send information to the city about the condition of the streets they’re driving on. When their cars hit a pothole – or a pothole-to-be – their phone sends the accelerometer data to a server application, which combines the information from many other phones to pinpoint problem areas on the streets to be repaired.  In addition to the passive reporting of the accelerometer and GPS data, users can contact a specific hotline number to manually report a problem or submit geolocated photographs of the problematic street segment. The data is then collected by the City in a map. The map includes both urgent fixes and areas that need bigger and more careful plan of investment. If three or more bumps occur at the same location, the City of Boston will physically inspect this obstacle and assign it to a queue for short-term repair or record its location to assist with longer-term repair planning.

There are some problems around the reporting of ‘false positives’ from citizens. The use of the phone’s accelerometer means that other vibrations which are felt/absorbed by the phone can be incorrectly calculated as a pothole or bump in the road surface upon which the vehicle is travelling. Citizens are encouraged to ensure that the phone is stationary inside the vehicle with horizontal positioning of the device likely to offer more accurate observations according to the help documentation. However these ‘false positives’ are reviewed manually internally. Unless there are multiple reports of a bump or pothole problem in the vicinity of a specific location it will not be physically investigated by City engineers.

Another issue is that the app is tedious to use. The app’s functionality is not easy to handle as the user needs to record any given road trip. For example, the users must choose to “Record a Trip” each time they get in their car, and at the end of the trip, they must choose to “End Trip and Upload”. Even more demanding is the fact that the app cannot run in the background and thus limits the access to other apps (i.e. navigation, caller etc.).

Finally, a social bias has been recorded since the app could only run to smartphones and used by people that have a car. This directed repair crews to wealthier neighborhoods, where people were more likely to carry smartphones and download the app.

Nevertheless, Street Bump is an effort trying to tap the collective intelligence of the crowd and improve the road network of the City of Boston. The officials admit that they have learned about what actually makes Boston’s roads bumpy. Residents most frequently reported problems about potholes, but the biggest cause of bumps is sunk manhole covers as this problem was found four times as much as potholes. Working with utility companies, the City fixed 1,250 of the worst manhole covers.


Main Lessons:

  1. There must be multiple reports of a problem from a specific area before city authorities will act upon this report and conduct a physical examination of the location of the problem. This reduces inefficient usage of resources investigating ‘false-positives’ which are frequently reported due to noisy or poor quality data received from accelerometers.
  2. The StreetBump application is very demanding of battery resources on the host smartphones. This could be problematic as many users would not like to run their smartphone battery down quickly using this application.
  3. The existence of applications that used crowdsourcing information helped in the development and acceptance, from the authorities’ side, of such an application.
  4. Social biases are easy to occur when there are fiscal prerequisites in the use of technology.
  5. Careful study of the data contributed might reveal patterns or other sources of problems that usually pass unnoticed by the authorities.



Resources :

Brisimi, T.S., Cassandras, C.G., Osgood, C., Paschalidis, I.C. and Zhang, Y., 2016. Sensing and Classifying Roadway Obstacles in Smart Cities: The Street Bump System. IEEE Access, 4, pp.1301-1312.

Zie, Julie. “Reporting Potholes: There Are Too Many Apps For That.” Boston.com. January 22, 2015. http://www.boston.com/cars/news-and-reviews/2015/01/22/reporting-potholes-there-are-too-many-apps-for-that/fffZvt3LME056eBbSmDtEM/story.html