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Carnegie Mellon Taps Tech To Tackle the Problem of Potholes

A project at Carnegie Mellon University has been launched in hopes of improving the condition of roads in Pittsburgh in time for the spring thaw while helping city road crews know where the worst potholes are located in their region. RODAS (for Road Damage Assessment System) allows anyone with a GPS-linked cell phone camera and a Facebook account to click a photo of a pothole and upload it via Facebook to a tracking site.

The latest initiative, spearheaded by Robert Strauss, professor of economics and public policy, and Takeo Kanade, professor of robotics and computer science, began last summer. It was suggested by Veronica Acha-Alvarez, a Chilean graduate student in public policy and management. The Pittsburgh effort is modeled after a program in Acha-Alvarez's native country. There it 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. The site was built by Todd Eichel, a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon's Masters of Information Systems Program, who joined the program in December.

This isn't the first time the institution has used social media to address road problems. In 2009 faculty and students collaborated on iBurgh, an iPhone app for reporting potholes and sending a picture with a note to the city's 311 information system. The university also came up with "How's My Street?" which allows users to report snow conditions on their roads and to request city action in clearing them.

For RODAS, when a participant clicks a photo of a pothole and uploads it via Facebook, the RODAS system 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 update the site when the hole is repaired, when the repair fails, or when it's ignored.

"With government budgets becoming increasingly tight, we need to figure out new ways of addressing road maintenance problems," said Strauss. "We are creating a secure, independent source of information about potholes that can be used to alert government agencies and to monitor their response."

While the driver must currently stop to capture an image of a pothole, in the future, the team hopes to allow drivers to mount cell phones on windshields and capture potholes as they drive. There's also talk of creating automated video systems that could continuously and automatically create maps of road conditions, including snow and ice removal.

While getting the community involved in the pothole problem is a primary goal of the project, 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 then have that contribution to the public good acknowledged 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."

The project has received seed funding from the Pennsylvania Business Council's PBC Education Foundation and the Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs through its Chrostwaite Institute.

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