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Harnessing the wisdom of crowds for better cities

12 February 2019
From our ‘Thinking outside the box’ series
Infrastructure management in modern cities, with rapidly growing populations, is a challenging task. However, authorities can utilise the collective intelligence of users to monitor the status of infrastructure assets, writes Supun Perera.

Infrastructure management in modern cities, with rapidly growing populations, is a challenging task. Authorities spend considerable levels of resources for the purposes of asset status monitoring, so that capital work fund allocations for maintenance and upgrades can be appropriately prioritised. Therefore, tangible benefits can be achieved by the authorities through involvement of the users in monitoring the status of assets in any given system.

The users who frequently interact with a system (for example, users of roads, public transport services, active transport or recreational infrastructure etc.) can be thought of as ‘agents’ who depend on the functional integrity and performance of the assets which constitute that system. These ‘agents’ are therefore capable of gathering valuable information and insights related to the status and functionality of assets, which may not be immediately available to the operators of the overall system. With the advancement in the speed and reach of communications and information flow, any user can act as a ‘consultant’ by sharing their individual experiences, insights and/or recommendations1. Therefore, a tool which enables the relevant authorities to harness this collective intelligence from the system users, can be invaluable for efficiently monitoring and managing assets.

The practice of soliciting help towards a common goal from a distributed audience is referred to as ‘crowdsourcing’. Crowdsourcing itself is not a new idea (a good example of crowdsourcing is Wikipedia - a free, web-based collaborative encyclopedia platform which operates on a non-profit basis through active volunteer contributors who continuously add new knowledge to the system). However, the significant increase in smartphone ownership worldwide, within the past decade in particular, has enabled unlocking the full potential of crowdsourcing. A range of interesting crowdsourced mobile apps, which allow users to contribute and benefit in various ways, already exist2.

Based on a review of currently available apps, one which facilitates sharing of asset status information by users with relevant authorities was identified. This app is named Snapsendsolve3 and is currently operational across most regions in Australia and NZ. Snapsendsolve enables users to share comments and/or complaints (including photographs) about a certain issue with the relevant authority. The app is capable of automatically identifying the authority responsible for a given issue on the basis of the location and the type of the issue (as selected by the user of the app). In essence, this app is similar to the ‘contact us’ form in authority webpages, with the difference being that the user does not need to know the authority responsible for the impacted asset. Whilst this app is a good starting point, which enables the users to communicate easily with relevant authorities on issues pertaining to assets in various systems, there are multiple ways in which additional functionalities could be added to unleash the full potential of crowdsourcing.

For instance, an open user community in a street map setting could be envisaged as the basic platform of the crowdsourcing app (similar to Waze4 – a community-based GPS navigation app). This will enable users to drop a pin on the map (similar to Apple maps) and identify the locations of the assets of interest. Comments and photos of the issue (the types of issues could be predefined by the app in a drop-down list) that should be brought to the attention of the relevant authority can be directly uploaded to the system, transparently, by all users. Upon identification of an issue by a user, the app will automatically direct the complaint to the relevant authority.

Beyond the asset status monitoring application, this app could prove helpful in identification of hazards, ranging from an uneven footpath posing a tripping hazard to pedestrians or a broken swing in a park posing a safety hazard to children to road black spot identification. In particular, until the matter is attended to by the relevant authority, others in the local community will also be informed of the asset issues through the app, so that they can take relevant actions to minimize their exposure to the hazards.

The open community platform, in a map display, will allow the users to transparently contribute and interact with other users. For instance, users could add comments or up vote the issues other users have already identified. This will enable prioritization of issues that need to be resolved by the relevant authority and minimize the duplication of complaints on a single issue (which is unavoidable in a non-transparent ‘contact us’ web form system that is currently being used).

A key challenge in current systems is encouraging the active participation of the community (beyond the good Samaritans) in the comment/complaint submission process. The transparency of the proposed platform is useful in this regard, for attracting more users to engage with the app, since it enables one to be aware of the hazards in their local area and avoid these in advance. In addition, users can be further incentivized by allowing the authorities to communicate back with them through the app, as it will enable the users to be up to date more easily with the latest local information5. For instance, a local Council could easily alert the app user community of the location of a traffic disruption and inform the users of the road system to avoid the affected route.

This kind of a crowdsourcing application, through a mobile app, is an ideal way to involve the local community in the betterment of infrastructure and management of hazards. The wealth of data collected from the app over time can form a larger picture that could be used for many different purposes in future, beyond policy decision making. This concept, if developed and implemented, is capable of fundamentally transforming the current reactive approach for asset monitoring and hazard identification towards a more rigorous, evidence-based and proactive approach.

  1. Harnessing the wisdom of crowds: New online resource shares impact of analytics on crowdsourcing [Internet]. INFORMS. 2017 [cited 10 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.informs.org/About-INFORMS/News-Room/Press-Releases/Harnessing-the-wisdom-of-crowds-New-online-resource-shares-impact-of-analytics-on-crowdsourcing
  2. Shadbolt P. The 11 most amazing crowdsourcing apps [Internet]. CNN. 2015 [cited 10 November 2018]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2014/11/13/tech/mobile/tomorrow-transformed-crowdsourcing-apps/index.html
  3. Snap Send Solve - Send a report in a Snap [Internet]. Snap Send Solve. 2018 [cited 12 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.snapsendsolve.com/
  4. Free Driving Directions, Traffic Reports & GPS Navigation App by Waze [Internet]. Waze.com. 2018 [cited 14 November 2018]. Available from: https://www.waze.com/en-GB/
  5. Abdeen Afra. fitIT Crowdsourcing App. Sydney; 2018.