We walk our streets and some of us drive on them, everyday. We know a bad road when we walk or drive through them. Unfortunately such rich information is dispersed among us, rendering it useless. At the same time, road quality problems persist, due to lack of timely detection and reporting to a large measure, and cause injuries or damages and become a major source of liabilities for the cities that have bad roads.
Crowdsourcing is not a new idea. In its essence, it aggregates dispersed information, capital, or knowhow for a common purpose. Several startups have been formed to crowdsource the road quality information leveraging the little supercomputer in our pockets or cars that can sense motions and therefore infer quality problems like potholes. Carbin, an app from fixmyroad.us is one such app. 1 This project was started by some MIT students and professors out of frustration that they could not get road quality data from city governments. The first iOS version of the app was released in February 2019, and the android version was released soon after. After that, they had a media blitz culminating in a New York Times article on the startup in Jan 2020. 2 Their plan was to commercialize the app. Then COVID came. They faced their first hurdle.
Wide spread use of road sensing apps like Carbon clearly provides benefits to many parties. The municipal governments who have long relied on call-in reporting to gather road quality data from complaints (by its nature, complaint data may not be timely or accurate as they depend on the subjective judgement and emotional state of the reporter), can acquire more timely and good quality data from such apps which leads to timely repair. This in turn will benefit citizens who can enjoy safe roads they use daily.
Despite benefits to city governments and citizens, the success of road quality sensing startups is far from being assured. At the core of the uncertainty lies the incentive structure. Some civic conscious users will use the apps, but what is the incentive for large groups of users to download and use such apps? For the startup themselves, while it is all good to contribute to social welfare, where does their income come from? In order for crowdsourcing apps to scale, three things startups must do:
- continue to improve their technology,
- provide incentives to users for large scale adoption and
- work with municipal governments to help improve their operations.
As the biggest beneficiary, the municipal governments should step in to influence the development of the sector and help resolve some of the problems startups will face, by working with and funding startups, for example.