Using apps to do a “Pothole and Poop Patrol”

Setting the stage: Last June I was blown away with an insurance company’s commercial for an IPhone/Smartphone App letting people properly document a car accident in order to help simplify the claims process.

Looking through the newspaper this morning, I noticed yet another example of an otherwise mundane app for smartphones: Apparently, a bunch of American (and presumably other) cities have apps which allow local citizens to collect data including photos and location (usually by but not always gps coordinates) of potholes, and using 3G/Wi-Fi hotspots to report potholes directly to the local public works, saving money by bypassing presumably more expensive operators, field inspectors and the like, as well as saving money by directing workers directly to where work is needed instead of waiting around for the information to trickle through the system. And, essentially, putting crowd-sourcing, or the notion of “many eyes will eventually reveal bugs” to work.

Many such apps also are more general and allow people to report all sorts of things beyond potholes, such as broken lamp standards, water main breaks, and the like.

Beyond being impressed, it made me think back to 2001-2002 when I’d just gotten a gps and started playing geocaching: One of the funny stories that came about in geocaching circles (and no doubt general gps circles) when people were learning about the uses of gps with 3m-8m accuracy involved some groups of people essentially going out on “Poop Patrol”, marking the locations of where they found piles of poop left by — no, I won’t indulge in the joke that just came into my mind and perhaps yours — ok, here it is, poople, who don’t clean up after their dogs. We thought “What, don’t people have better things to do with their lives than go around looking for piles of poop and filling up their gps memory with their locations? What are they going to do with the information and all the waypoints? Chase down and tackle the offenders? What about the local council meetings that will no doubt have people being laughed at during question period when they bring their lists of waypoints?”

Funny, mulling over the “Pothole Patrol” I read about in the paper this morning, the “Poop Patrol” seemed less amusing in the ridiculous sense and more viable as a way of measuring hot spots for increased street cleaning, or identifying dog walking hot spots where perhaps municipalities might consider adding dog runs where they might not have without the “Poop Patrol” data, or adding or reinforcing secondary services such installing bag distributors for dog walkers who forgot their bags to “poop & scoop” mounted on lampposts (and of course filled by conscientious dog-walkers who can bring their excess supplies of plastic bags) as can be found in many dog run parks, or add extra garbage bins in those areas.

Again, along those lines, I’m thinking about geocaching.com, which facilitates “Benchmark Hunting” (in its most basic form, taking the coordinates of USGS benchmarks and going out to hunt them for the pleasure of it, and then logging the finds as well as the adventures along the way on the website.) I bet the USGS takes advantage of the informal “inspections” in some way.

Or how, in about 2001-2002, again when I was starting off with geocaching, I’d registered for an account with Natural Resources Canada to search out Gravimetric Markers, essentially the same as geographic benchmarks but whose purpose and location are related to standard measurements for gravity; I live near one, and there’s one near my cottage, so the idea of doing volunteer inspections along the lines of doing simple check lists seemed like a fun complementary activity to geocaching seemed like fun. Such checklists could contain, say, 5 items on the physical integrity, access, and so on related to the marker which any person off the street could perform on a regular, semi-regular, or sporadic basis and the results of which could be useful to the maintainers so that the responsible body could channel resources to “more important” activities as well as proritize maintenance schedules, as above.

At the same time, I also “noticed” all the Bell Canada telephone switching boxes along the way to the cottage in the same light and thought about doing volunteer inspections, which I never pursued.

Unfortunately home networking issues at the time made accessing my account with Natural Resources Canada difficult and the charm of both ideas fizzled out.

But now, the ideas from “The Poop Patrol” to volunteer inspections of Gravimetric Markers and Bell Canada switching boxes, in the light of “The Pothole Patrol” and taking into account human idiosyncracies and the human penchant for such trivial pastimes, seem less silly …

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