Here’s How Syracuse Plans to Gather Data on All of Its Potholes and Rough Roads

Syracuse, N.Y.

Syracuse, N.Y. Shutterstock


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The New York municipality is testing low-cost sensor technology recently developed by a New York City-based startup.

Using newly developed sensor technology, the city of Syracuse, New York, is now attempting to gather and map data on all of the rough pavement and potholes afflicting its city streets.

The data collection kicked off last Friday. It involves a so-called Street Quality Identification Device—or SQUID—pioneered by the New York City-based startup ARGO Labs. The devices are designed to be attached to a vehicle. They collect information as the vehicle travels, measuring and photographing street quality with an accelerometer and an inexpensive camera.

SQUID technology has been used to assess street quality in parts of New York City. But Syracuse would be the first municipality to collect data on all of its streets.

“I see this approach having a very direct connection to how we manage the workflow of our pothole-filling and road repair crews,” Andrew Maxwell, director of policy and innovation in Mayor Stephanie Miner’s administration, said by phone Monday. “Right now it is a lot of responding to citizen complaints. It’s pretty reactive.”

“This initiative with SQUID is going to provide us with more comprehensive information,” he added.

At a time when state and federal dollars and local tax revenues are constrained, that type of information is important, Maxwell explained. “This is about taking the dollars that we do spend each year and stretching them further, and making them work for people faster,” he said.

Maxwell foresees the possibility of a model to prioritize road repairs in real time, which factors in both citizen reports about street conditions and the SQUID data.

Gathering data on the quality the city’s roughly 400 centerline-miles of roadway is expected to take about one week. For now, the city is using one SQUID on a trial basis, according to Maxwell. The device is attached to a Department of Public Works truck.

The anticipated cost of the trial project is between $2,000 and $3,000. In addition to other technical support, ARGO will assist the city with processing the data into a user-friendly format.

If the trial goes well, Maxwell said the city might then consider whether to purchase one or more of the SQUIDs to analyze street conditions going forward.

Varun Adibhatla, a founding member of ARGO, believes SQUID technology has the potential to greatly improve the efficiency of street repair efforts.

For instance, a crew dispatched to a given city block could gain access to information about conditions on nearby streets. This might help them better plan their workday, or even choose a more efficient route to jobsites, cutting down on travel time and leaving more time for repairs.

“In New York City, at least, it’s 3-1-1 complaints that drive a bunch of the response,” Adibhatla said. “It becomes like a whack-a-mole approach.”

SQUID technology has other possible benefits as well, he added. As opposed to prioritizing repairs on where people are complaining most vocally, Adibhatla noted that, “If you are able to collect a complete dataset of street quality, you can start making equitable decisions.”

Along with complaints, Syracuse has previously used a street quality rating system to guide pothole repairs and other road maintenance. This has involved a Department of Public Works employee driving city roadways and scoring them on a scale of one to 10 based on set criteria.

“To some degree that’s a subjective process,” Maxwell said.

And because that scoring process is time consuming, the city has only rated its roads about once every two years. “With the intensity of our winters,” Maxwell said, “that’s not sufficient.”

There are other technologies available to gather data on road conditions similar to what ARGO’s system provides. But these rely on lasers and other sophisticated technology, which can be pricey to buy or rent. As designed, a complete SQUID setup costs between $200 and $300, Adibhatla said.

Each unit is slightly larger than a smartphone, with a height of about six inches.

Adibhatla noted that, to alleviate privacy concerns, the cameras are designed to be mounted so that they point down at the road and do not capture images of people in public spaces.

Looking ahead, he said ARGO, which stands for Advanced Research in Government Operations, might explore whether to incorporate other sensors into the SQUID system. A gas sensor, for instance, could enable a city to gather real time data about things like ozone levels—providing a metric of air quality on city streets.

“This is where we’d like to focus our efforts in the long term,” Adibhatla said. “To help cities figure out how they can collect data at scale.”

Bill Lucia is a Reporter for Government Executive’s Route Fifty.

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