How crowdsourced urban geo data can bring improved streets and traffic management

Some cities are benefiting from a new data collection paradigm that involves gathering real-time info on street conditions reported via mobile apps by everyday citizens. Here's where and how it works.

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In Boston, residents can help improve their urban streets by downloading a Street Bump mobile app that collects road condition data while they drive. The city gathers this data and provides real-time information to users on street conditions. The city also uses the data for street maintenance planning.

In New York, Seattle, and San Francisco, real-time mobile apps help harried drivers find parking spots in congested downtown areas.

Two trends are clear: Cities are moving to more real-time data for residents and residents are getting the chance to directly contribute data to an open data repository that's continuously being updated with the latest information.

"Working with open transportation data that is both real time and static has been a boon to cities, especially smaller cities with limited budgets for their geographic information systems (GISes)," said Matt Caywood, CEO of TransitScreen, which provides real-time mobile data curation services.

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In the not-so-distant past, cities and online services were providing residents and visitors with static street map information that showed users what routes were available to get from point A to point B, but they left out equally vital information, such as where streets were closed for road repairs and where parking could be obtained downtown. This static and often outdated information made it necessary for city maintenance crews to perform manual inspections throughout the city to check for areas in need of repair. The physical inspections are still carried out—but now they're embellished with real-time or near real-time information that comes in not only from city planners and operations superiors, but from everyday citizens who use mobile apps to report a pothole or a dangerous break in the pavement.

"The concept of an "open" street app that anyone can contribute information to actually began in the UK, and it solved several problems for cities, Caywood said. "First, to even come close to obtaining real-time or near real-time data, cities had to pay outside services for it, and few cities could afford it. Second, with cities throughout the world needing continuously updated data on streets, there was no way to economically approach a project of getting every city as accurately documented as possible.... By opening up street data repositories to everyone, cities began to 'crowdsource' their street data gathering with the help of everyday citizens. This enabled more real-time and near real-time information because citizens who came across a pot hole, or who noticed that a bus stop was not at the location indicated on a map, could report it."

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For cities democratizing their street data gathering with mobile apps, this work is not an end in itself, but rather a beginning. In fact, adding crowdsourced "live" data to internal live and static data is creating a live data platform that can generate new ways for cities to interact with their residents and deliver value. These new ways include:

  • A way for cities to send mobile alerts to travelers when a given bus route is delayed or when a heavily trafficked street is burdened with an accident
  • A way to notify a resident through a mobile message alert that it's time to leave the house to catch the bus
  • A way for a resident to complain about a city service or a rude bus driver on the spot
  • The deployment of street "smart signs" and other IoT-powered street assets, such as tram tracks with sensors that can detect potential maintenance problems before they ever occur so they can be proactively fixed

"These are just a few of the uses that will launch off of more real time geo information: Caywood said. "Few cities have this today, but they will in two or three years."

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Image: iStock/Animaflora

By Mary Shacklett

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President o...