• 03.15.13

Ridding The Country’s Roads Of Potholes, With An Army Of Online Inspectors

Using Google Streetview and Mechanical Turk, a new project is listing roads in need of repair around the country.

Ridding The Country’s Roads Of Potholes, With An Army Of Online Inspectors

Our roads are in a sorry state. The American Society of Civil Engineers (whose members wouldn’t mind being hired to fix them) gives our roads a D- for the poor conditions costing U.S. motorists $67 billion a year in repairs and operating costs, about $333 per motorist.


Since we have 2.6 million miles of paved roads in the U.S., no government agency will reasonably be able to fix or even keep tabs on them all. But that may not be true for the many denizens of the Internet.

University of Maryland researchers, possibly sick of their bumpy ride to work, have shown it’s possible to enlist hundreds of online workers to cruise Google Street View and identify streets in need of repair.

Typically, municipalities audit their roads with slow and costly drive-bys using crews who may need to make multiple trips to finalize a fix. The U.S. Department of Transportation, interested in a cheaper tool to clean up the country’s roads, encouraged Maryland professor Jon Froehlich and his team to develop software using crowdsourcing and Google Street View to solve the same problem.

The team enlisted six volunteers as well as 402 workers on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a crowd sourcing platform where tasks may cost as little as one cent, to label problem areas without any special training aside of an instructional video. The workers–looking at images collected by Google’s camera-equipped cars–were able to identify and label about 14,000 road problems such as potholes, obstructed pathways, broken curbs, and missing ramps (researchers are focusing first on street access). Turkers accurately spotted access issues about 80% of the time and could hit 93% with quality control measures in place. There are still problems to work out–how to select the right image point of view, identify all types of road issues, and others–but the potential seems promising. The researchers say they’ll be looking to scale the technology next.

And they’re not alone. A number of crowdsourced road repair apps and initiatives are already on the streets. SeeClickFix, in London, the Road Damage Assessment System by Carnegie Mellon University, and Boston’s Street Bump take different approaches to giving drivers and pedestrians an easier time of it on the rough roads out there.

About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.