Can Blockchain Fix Potholes?

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The technology is about far more than cryptocurrency. The founders of PotholeCoin see a future where motorists can join up to pay for their own pothole repairs.

The advance of digital technologies has been promising to fix potholes and other infrastructure problems (e.g., graffiti) for the past decade. But the technologies like Boston’s StreetBump and SeeClickFix are primarily about identifying where the potholes are – and how much they annoy us. Left largely untouched is the difficult problem of actually funding the fixes. It’s one thing to say, “hey this pothole is a problem,” but quite something else to find the money to do something meaningful about it.

Blockchain technologies might change that, according to the co-founders of PotholeCoin. The California-based duo of John Lynch and Eric Stromberg are steering this startup into somewhat familiar territory, crowdsourcing, but with a significant twist: the app and company will provide a way for people to fund specific-location repairs.

PotholeCoin builds on various successful, albeit limited in scope, crowdsourcing ventures. StreetBump is in its seventh year. In Nairobi, Kenya drivers began using Twitter in 2018 with the hashtag #WhatIsARoad to send pictures and locations of bad pavement. In the beta stage, Nairobians found that potholes in those tweets were, on average, fixed within three days.

Blockchain is indeed an exciting tool for all kinds of industries, although it is poorly understood in many circles. It is most commonly associated with cryptocurrency, Bitcoin in particular, some of which has unsavory associations. But the technology itself is being employed in all sorts of ways such as in healthcare (comprehensive and fast access to health records in emergencies), real estate (simplification of transactional paperwork and elimination of escrow), law (storing, retrieving and verification of documents), and other industries. The beneficial features include security of data and money, speed, and decentralized control.

The way that PotholeCoin hopes to be deployed – the company is in the funding stage, planning to tap into the blockchain investor community – is simple enough to understand. Motorists will offer up a “bounty,” basically any amount of money they wish to fund the repairs of a specific pothole or rough patch of asphalt. When the cumulative money offered (from one or several parties) is sufficient to fund a repair, the app informs the maintenance organization (which could be a public or licensed private enterprise) on what to do. When the job is sufficiently completed, PotholeCoin then pays them.

“Many people are frustrated by our collective inability to fix the roads,” says Lynch. “This problem gets a lot of mindshare. We are convinced that if drivers have a simple opportunity to contribute a small amount to fixing hyper-local issues like potholes, they will. They just need the opportunity to identify potholes, prioritize them and contribute – bounties – to funding their repair.  The bounties create the incentive for the work to be done that is otherwise unfunded and unprioritized.”

A July 2018 article in Forbes magazine by Bernard Marr, author of “Big Data in Practice” and “Key Business Analytics,” sees blockchain technologies as a boon to charities and aid organizations, which seems akin to private individuals trying to fix public property. Those offering a bounty to fix a pothole are, after all, altruistically helping a few thousand other road users in the process. “Many people want to donate to charity organizations, but worry about whether their money will actually reach the intended recipients,” says Marr. “Smart contracts and online reputation management systems can help donors trust that their money is going to the specified people and places.”

The old ways of road maintenance were tied to new gas taxes or other, broadly defined municipal fiscal actions, raising or earmarking money that might in the fog of bureaucracy be diverted to other purposes. But knowing the money is going to fix a particular pothole is the basis of PotholeCoin, so the clean connection of bounty dollars to the pothole in question is fundamental.

“Not wanting to compete with municipalities, it’s a way to supplement the resources they have to specifically fight potholes,” says Lynch.

The blockchain tool is a phase-2 goal for the PotholeCoin app. For the time being, payment through PayPal and other apps will be used. Lynch says government entities responsible for road maintenance will ultimately have a choice on whether they participate. “Municipalities will react in one of three ways: Embrace it, look the other way (let it happen but stay uninvolved), or fight it,” he adds.

“This will empower people to fund the repairs,” Lynch says. “It’s not about throwing money at general funds. It’s hyper-local funding that targets the problem that bothers people most.”