How to project a local problem to a global audience

Posted by Beth Perkins on Jun 21, 2011 2:18:17 PM

This post was written by two Client Service's team members who worked on the City of Boston's SpeedBump Challenge: Daniel Kuster, Ph.D. and Michael Albarelli, Ph.D.

streetbumpWe recently posted a Challenge for the City of Boston, to solve the problem of locating potholes throughout the city (  We believe the StreetBump Challenge prototypes a very powerful way for a city to approach problem solving, by projecting the municipal problem to a global audience of citizen Solvers.   Such an approach will become increasingly attractive as data become easier/cheaper to collect and share.  As part of the InnoCentive team who worked with the City of Boston to formulate the StreetBump Challenge, we are happy to share our perspective on this type of analytical Challenge at InnoCentive in particular, and some observations about how to get practical value from data-based endeavors in an open innovation marketplace.

Potholes are everywhere, but Boston’s are particularly difficult.  The many freeze-thaw cycles provided by Boston weather, heavy traffic, and a diverse network of street features combine to make street damage a pernicious problem.  In the StreetBump Challenge, the City of Boston provides Solvers with data (acceleration, GPS position, etc) from an Android smartphone app and asks them to predict where street damage was located.  By providing data and clear requirements for what constitutes a solution, the Challenge becomes accessible to Solvers around the world...anyone can intuitively understand that potholes are a nuisance and imagine how acceleration and GPS data from a smartphone might encode pothole “bumps” as cars drive throughout a city.  Like mathematics, the practice of data analysis transcends language and social barriers.  One does not need to have ever driven a car to understand and solve the problem.  When a Solver engages the data and innovates a better way to find street damage, then the data provide an objective benchmark so that the best Solutions can be identified.

Data are an essential part of the StreetBump Challenge.  We are excited to see data included with a Challenge because it gives Solvers something concrete to operate upon and because progress is easily evaluated.  A smartphone can be a great platform for gathering data because the hardware provides great sensor functionality while the software can be tailored for a particular data collection task and then efficiently distributed to a population.  Smartphones are just one type of device that can generate data for an open innovation challenge.  Where there is a problem, there is always something interesting to be measured!

Another exciting aspect of the StreetBump Challenge is directly related to the fact that the Seeker is a city.  These types of Challenges (like street damage) are usually shared by many cities worldwide, so benefits discovered by one city might easily translate to another.  We are sure there are many other kinds of municipal/infrastructure Challenges that can be addressed by a global audience.  Alternatively, we can imagine a city using Challenges to develop outdated or under-utilized resources.  Does your city have a unique resource that could be leveraged or re-purposed to solve a significant problem?  Maybe we all can help!

Daniel Kuster, Ph.D. and Michael Albarelli, Ph.D.

Topics: Challenges

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