Citizen Pothole Reporting Via Phone Apps Take Off, But Can Street Maintenance Departments Keep Up?

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The most modern of innovations, smartphone apps, are rapidly becoming a means to fix one of humankind’s oldest problems: potholes.

And why not? Regardless of whether you were a fan of Isaac Asimov or the television show “Bewitched,” the futuristic/magical ability to point at a problem and fix it instantly (well, almost) is instinctively appealing. To do that, there are now several apps that combine the basic smart phone tools – cameras, the global positioning system (GPS) and a short-cut email function – which enable a single snap-send way to report a pothole (or graffiti or broken streetlights or other municipal problems).

The fact that several apps have been developed – some that are city-sponsored, others operating nationally by third parties who then patch the report through to local street and highway maintenance departments – suggests this is an idea and technology whose time has come.

This “civic app” is so new (most were introduced in the winter of 2009 –2010) that there is not a lot of data to show how effective it is. But we can learn a lot from what Portland, Oregon has done with its mobile app. There, citizens are connected directly to city services that repair streetlights, potholes, sewer catch basins, graffiti and park equipment. When the app was launched in February 2010, citizens in the tech-savvy city were quick to embrace it.

But Portland’s maintenance crews were initially overwhelmed with reports on potholes that needed fixing. Your intrepid Pothole.info reporter contacted Rick Nixon, Project Manager for Technological Initiatives at the City of Portland to see what has happened since, particularly as they gear up for the 2010 – 2011 pothole season.

Pothole.info: We read about your successful launch in early 2010, followed by how street maintenance crews had a hard time keeping up with incoming pothole reports. Have you been able to change that?

Nixon: The maintenance department has managed to increase the response times overall since the initial surge of users. While we know that the app means we’ll get more reports, it also creates efficiencies. For example, we can distinguish between city and county roads before going out to a site. So the potholes are filled by the appropriate agencies without wasted trips.

Pothole.info: Why do you suppose it was so successful so quickly?

Nixon: The great thing about the pothole mapping app is that it removes complication for the user. Now instead of making a phone call or visiting a website, a citizen using the mobile app can report the problem from the point and moment of discovery. This simply leads to much more community participation.

Pothole.info: Your app was developed specifically for Portland by your department. How much did it cost and do you think you have an advantage with your own?

Nixon: Actually, we have an app development specialist here on staff who was already working on a mobile mapping app. He managed to build this in his own time, so the costs were quite minimal. We like how this app works because it is designed to marry into the existing workflow. We have our in-house ticketing system for processing and completing work orders and it is now a seamless part of that.

Pothole.info: How many people use it and what do you think will happen in your second winter pothole season?

Nixon: Between February and September 2010 we received 625 pothole reports. We added the Droid app in September and as of December 2010 we know that 7,000 apps have been downloaded. So we expect we will get more reports in this year – and we’re ready.

Pothole.info: What has been the public’s response in Portland and elsewhere?

Nixon: Both the media and citizen response is positive and favorable [media coverage was widespread, well outside of the greater Portland area]. It boils down to extensive citizen participation, which is good. We’ve made the software open sourced so other cities can take advantage of it, and several are.

Building pothole apps elsewhere

Indeed, there are many cities building their own phone apps, “Government 2.0” as some are calling it, to enable reporting of potholes and other matters. The general term for such apps that pull people together in a single cause is referred to as “crowdsourcing.”

In Chicago, it’s not the city itself but a candidate for city alderman who developed “Chicago Works,” a place for involved citizens to report potholes, graffiti and broken street lights. The candidate receives the reports directly in her office, which she then forwards to the appropriate parties at the city. Why would a candidate do this? She’s building a constituency of community support.

This is similar to what was described in an ABC News special report on March 29, 2010 regarding the convergence of politics and technology.

According to Brent Blackaby, an online political strategist in the story, mobile software keeps voters engaged with an elected official during his or her term, yet avoids crossing the line between governing responsibilities and campaigning. Elected individuals need “to communicate with the people that support them [to show] all the good things that the elected official is doing so that people are still connected,” says Blackaby. Those voters are “still in the loop with what’s happening. When it comes time for campaign season to begin again, you’ve got a strong base of support and a strong team of people online, you have grassroots support behind you.”

Clearly, they don’t call it pothole politics for nothing.

Certainly, the ability of a mayor and a streets department or state department of transportation to fix potholes in a reasonable period of time can make or break an election. So it might just be a matter of smart governance that a number of cities have similarly developed their made-for-there pothole reporting apps. Each city takes a slightly different approach:

Boston: As previously reported on Pothole.info, a full 8,500 phones had downloaded Boston Citizens Connect 2.0 by early 2010. National Public Radio interviewed Boston resident Heather Sears, who formerly went through the bureaucracy of reporting problems to city hall. Sears clearly embraces phone app technology in her personal campaign to clean up the city (the app also includes graffiti reporting). “My graffiti picture is going to the dude who’s going to fix the graffiti!” she says. “Directly to the dude! And that feels good.”

Sandy Springs, Georgia: This Atlanta suburb launched its phone app, CoSSpotter, on December 1, 2010, which is available in iPhone, Blackberry and Android formats. And you thought they didn’t get potholes in Georgia? This case shows such an app can be applied on a very local basis.

San Antonio, Texas (Bexar County): The app is called YourGOV, and it allows reporting of both potholes and roadkill (Armadillos, one assumes). The city worked with software developers CarteGraph who, according to Bexar County Engineer Reneé Green, P.E., “It’s a real change for an industry that typically lives by the Big Chief tablet and No. 2 pencil. This helps us be more efficient.”

Los Angeles County and San Bernadino (California) County: With a population of 10 million and more streets, highways and roads than movie starlets, the CitySourced app launched in November 2010 and is usable on iPhone, Blackberry and Android formats. With so many convertibles and drivers on cellphones – and one of the most pothole-ridden cities in the country – one can only imagine how busy the county highway department will be as more and more people download the free app (most civic apps are provided without charge or are very inexpensive).

Long Beach, California: Named “Go Long Beach,” this smartphone app allows citizens to report road, sidewalk and wall (graffiti) damage, but will eventually include broken water fountains in public parks, illegal dumping, missing street signs, overgrown weeds and sidewalk damage. “The ‘Go Long Beach’ App helps keep our community safe, clean and beautiful,” Mayor Bob Foster told the Long Beach Post. The city’s Director of Public Works, Michael Conway, told the paper, “The app will help us be even more responsive, because the quicker we know about a problem, the quicker we can fix it.”

Charlotte, North Carolina: “My Charlotte” launched in November 2010 and can be purchased through iTunes, with Blackberry and Android versions a bit later. The app applies to pothole reporting, graffiti and accidents that cause traffic tieups. Its development cost $100,000, but is part of a broader program development they call “Margaret,” an avatar that can answer many questions from the city databases. Margaret will operate via interactive voice response.

There’s no such thing as “hush hush sweet Charlotte” if there are potholes to fix. This town is ambitious – and a place to watch, because if it works it could take the relationship between citizens and cities to a whole new level.

National apps – and what it might add up to

Entrepreneurs everywhere are jumping on the app rush with just about anything that marries cellular mobility with a function. Pothole reporting is no different, with the introduction of at least three players: SaveMyTire.com, SeeClickFix and 311 Universal.

SaveMyTire is the newest entry into the nationwide pothole reporting apps. Available for iPhone and Android platforms, it claims several functions that will make its reports more authentic. Those include a filtering method for identifying false reports. It also blocks multiple submissions by the same smartphone in the same geographical area (to prevent one person trying to scream attention for their particular pothole, we assume). SaveMyTire also requires “a certain threshold of reports on a given area before it is considered a genuine pothole location.” Once reports reach that threshold, participating road maintenance departments are contacted via email.

It remains to be seen how well SaveMyTire manages to build up those relationships, while also getting the app distributed deeply enough such that the critical mass is reached to achieve effectiveness. But it seems to be working toward a goal of authenticity and veracity. If they are successful, it could be the killer app to define the category.

According to the online magazine Drivers.com, “the real benefits of [pothole reporting apps] lie in the ability to create ‘neighborhood groups’ and ‘watch areas’ to monitor issues and get feedback on results. In other words, it’s entirely conceivable that individuals will take on pothole reporting as a mission, perhaps in teams, where such individuals will alleviate the workload of city, county and state employees who are otherwise responsible for identifying where the problem areas are.

That’s the good news. The bad news might be that some neighborhoods or roads will get disproportionate attention because they are well organized, while others – perhaps where economics cuts into smartphone availability – get less. But given the free nature of these apps, and the likely full distribution of advanced cellular product availability, this problem will likely diminish over time.

SeeClickFix is another national pothole app that heeds this idea of community involvement. In fact, its tagline is “Power to the Community.” There is a Community Groups page on the service’s website that encourages volunteers to use SeeClickFix to “amplify their voices…by helping community leaders find and connect with others who care” via the app. Members of the community can post a head shot and earn civic points for reporting potholes, other pavement issues, graffiti and failed traffic control features (broken or missing lights and signs). The site has been up at least since 2008 and shows signs of a developing community with many members.

311 Universal enables citizens to shoot and send images and GPS coordinates for any kind of city problem that would otherwise be reported on a 3-1-1 non-emergency line. According to developer Steve Barham, reporting anything from vandalism to potholes will help cities and police departments to notice patterns that lead to better preventive law enforcement.

But as is abundantly clear, just recognizing and reporting a problem doesn’t get it fixed. There are funding concerns across the board with regard to street repairs. This may limit what crews and materials are available for the “fix” phase of the workflow.

On the other hand, the political impetus to respond to constituents may be what drives success with pothole apps.  The nation’s roads are deteriorating faster than they are currently being repaired due to budget limitations. So citizen ire and subsequent reporting can only grow over time.

Consequently it likely will become very hard for elected officials to ignore the increasing number of pothole app reports. From that it’s not hard to envision the net effect to be smoother roads – proving a real, quality-of-life benefit can actually result from gee-whiz technology.