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  • Kat Allen

GIS and Responsive Government: The Problem of Potholes

If you live in a place with roads, especially in a place with roads and where the ground freezes, you've probably experienced a road with potholes.(1) These damaged sections of the road form when the surface breaks down, which can happen over time as cars drive over the road, but it is massively worsened by the freeze/thaw cycle, especially as water gets into small cracks and then freezes. Crews out filling potholes that formed over the winter is as sure a sign of spring here in New England as mud and flowers, and are just as welcome, if not more so, to beleaguered commuters hoping that their axels will not break when the narrow street makes it impossible to avoid potholes without swerving into oncoming traffic, cyclists, or pedestrians.

But that lovely sign of spring can only happen when the local government knows where to find those potholes. Someone can drive around and mark them, of course, but that takes time and a dedicated city employee with a map—so some local governments are taking advantage of the ubiquity of GPS tracking in smartphones and asking citizens to help out. Some apps ask users to report when they find a pothole , but the City of Boston went one better and adopted an app that auto-detects potholes using the accelerometer in the smartphone. (2)

This is great! Not only does the city find out more about where to prioritize repairs, users get to feel like they are Doing Something about the problem, which everyone likes. And technology is taking the hard work of painstakingly making a map of all the potholes in the city and turning it into a beautiful GIS dataset: what's not to like!

GIS map on the left of pothole locations, picture of pothole filled with water on the right

What is not to like? It's Big Data and Privacy Again

There are, of course, the usual privacy concerns with any data collection. If you know where I have found potholes, you know where I've been driving — especially if I am using the automatic pothole detection software. Who gets to know where I have been driving? Where I stopped? How will they use that information, other than for sending out pothole repair crews?

Adoption of this technology can be hugely powerful, but (in the absence of a Roman-style benevolent dictator) we need to bind the hands holding that powerful technology lest it be used against us (or to sell things to us, which is honestly where this would go first...)

Is your city using automated pothole detection? Would you sign up if they were? Let me know in the comments!

(1) You can learn all about potholes at, including the fact that National Pothole Day in both the US and UK is January 15

(2) That story is worth reading, since, after an initial disappointment, the City of Boston used crowdsourced ideas to improve the app, which made it much better at signal detection and eliminated the high rate of false positives

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1 Comment

Stephen Gross
Stephen Gross
Dec 02, 2021

Hi Kat, great article. I generally start with saying great article but this was one of the most fun to read for our class so far. You have a great writing style that is fun to read! One quick comment about the site first though. Your font weight is pretty thing and that can make it hard to read for older or more visually impaired people. The contrast was good, which is why I didn't have much problem reading it but you might consider bolding the text, making the font weight higher if possible, or finding a thicker font. With that aside, to address your/everyone's concern with data privacy in maps. Don't most map navigation apps already track your data?…

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