Potholes are the scourge of drivers during each spring thaw, often resulting in complaints to local government street departments and sometimes a trip to the repair shop.
Now a Carnegie Mellon University project allows anyone with a GPS-linked cell phone camera and a Facebook account to take an active role in monitoring the constantly changing pothole environment.
The Road Damage Assessment System (RODAS) Project, www.rodasproject.org, enables anyone to click a photo of a pothole and upload it via Facebook. The system then links the photo to a pinpoint on its online map, creating a public repository of road conditions that is independent of any government agency. The hope is that community members will continue to keep an eye on “their” potholes, updating the site when the hole is repaired, or when the repair fails, or if it simply goes unrepaired.
“With government budgets becoming increasingly tight, we need to figure out new ways of addressing road maintenance problems,” said Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy in the H. John Heinz III College. “We are creating a secure, independent source of information about potholes that can be used to alert government agencies and to monitor their response.”
The RODAS Project, headed by Strauss and Takeo Kanade, professor of robotics and computer science, began last summer. Veronica Acha-Alvarez, a Heinz College graduate student in public policy and management, said it is patterned after a successful program in her native Chile. The program includes contests, timed to coincide with elections, which seek to identify the largest potholes. Since the program began, road conditions have noticeably improved, she said.
Todd Eichel, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon’s Masters of Information Systems Program, joined the project in late December, and implemented the system. By making it a Facebook app, he explained, the project enables people to use any cell phone that can identify the GPS coordinates of the photos it takes.
The RODAS Project currently relies on pedestrians to photograph potholes, but Kanade said one goal is to create apps that use voice commands to snap photos. That might greatly extend the reach of the system by allowing drivers to mount their cell phone to their windshields and capture pothole photos as they drive. Further down the road, it might be possible to create automated video systems that could continuously and automatically create maps of road conditions, including snow and ice removal.
The project has received seed funding from the Pennsylvania Business Council’s PBC Education Foundation and the Pennsylvania Boroughs Association through its Chrostwaite Institute.
In addition to Kanade, Strauss, Acha-Alvarez and Eichel, the project team includes Ed Krokowsky, formerly a professor of civil engineering at CMU and now the principal at the George Wilson Co., a tri-state supplier of construction materials.
Getting the community involved in identifying and monitoring the pothole problem is the primary goal of the project, but the team also is considering other ways for people to help correct the problem. The project site, for instance, might provide a means for people to pay out of pocket to repair certain potholes and for recognizing that contribution to the public good online.
“Creating a community awareness of the pothole environment is the first step in creating a political awareness,” Strauss said. “Historically, repair of roads has always been an area of political favoritism. This new public database is a new tool people can use to monitor what road crews are doing and to judge the efficiency of government.”