Crowdsourcing government using big data


Yes, big data is sexy and data scientists are even sexier. But sometimes the best outcomes are more of a mundane nature than the things that grab headlines. You might think of it as indicative of our moving away from the heady rush of a new romance with big data to a more comfortable and responsible relationship. Case in point: a phone app that reports potholes and road conditions to local government thus sharing and crowdsourcing the government's work.

"Before they even start their trip, drivers using Street Bump fire up the app, then set their smartphones either on the dashboard or in a cup holder," explains Phil Simon in Wired. "The app takes care of the rest, using the phone's accelerometer--a motion detector--to sense when a bump is hit. GPS records the location, and the phone transmits it to an AWS remote server."

The idea was sound but the first experiments, not so much.

"It turned out that the first version of the app reported far too many false positives (i.e., phantom potholes)," writes Simon. "This finding no doubt gave ammunition to the many naysayers who believe that technology will never be able to do what people can and that things are just fine as they are, thank you. Street Bump 1.0 'collected lots of data but couldn't differentiate between potholes and other bumps.' After all, your smartphone or cell phone isn't inert; it moves in the car naturally because the car is moving. And what about the scores of people whose phones 'move' because they check their messages at a stoplight?"

Instead of giving up, former Boston mayor Thomas Menino and the Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics sought help to fix the problem. That led them to contracting open innovator and crowdsourcing firm, InnoCentive, which turned finding the solution into a contest and released it to the hive mind, reports Simon.

"The result: Street Bump 2.0 is hardly perfect, but it represents a colossal improvement over its predecessor," writes Simon. "The Street Bump website reports that thousands bumps have been detected. What's more, it's a quantum leap over the manual, antiquated method of reporting potholes no doubt still being used by countless public works departments throughout the country and the world. And future versions of Street Bump will only get better. Specifically, they may include early earthquake detection capability and different uses for police departments, something that's already taking place."

Look for governments everywhere to turn to crowdsourcing to help resolve problems and to the public to help take measurements and generate data for government use.

Big data is now making governments actually run "by the people." How cool is that?  

For more:
- see the Wired article

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