March 05, 2013, 3:39 PM — LAS VEGAS -- At the IBM Pulse conference here this week, City of Boston CIO Bill Oates , told an audience how residents are using city-made apps that improve city operations. One of Boston's latest apps, Street Bump, piqued the interest of attendee Gary Gilot, an engineer who heads the public works board in South Bend, Ind.
Information collected by the new app, which uses a smartphone's accelerometer to record road conditions and send the data to public works workers, has already helped utilities to do a better job at making manhole covers even with the road, Oates said.
Street Bump will be the subject of a citywide publicity campaign this summer in an effort to attract more users, he added.
Gilot was struck by the app's use of crowdsourcing to assess Boston roads.
South Bend has taken different approaches to same problem.
It once had a half-dozen city supervisors spend six weeks each year driving every street in the city and rating them using a standard road condition measures. It's latest effort was to hire a vendor to drive all South Bend streets and produce digital video for an analysis of pavement conditions.
But after hearing Oates explain how the Street Bump data was producing "big data" about road conditions by people who launched the app in their cars, Gilot had an admiring smile.
"We are behind them by a bunch," said Gilot, who sees Boston's app as a possible alternative to costly road surveys.
"I love the idea of the future -- that you can avoid the expense by crowdsourcing," said Gilot.
South Bend is not behind in the trend of using sensors to improve other operations.
For instance, the city has worked with IBM to create a wireless sensor system that detects changes in the sewer flow, and alerts the city to any problems detected. The system, which includes automated valves that can respond to issues, has reduced overflows and backups, said Gilot.
Improving municipal operations is a major theme at the IBM conference. The company's Smarter Planet initiative combines sensors, asset management, big data, mobile and cloud services into systems for managing government operations.
Boston and South Bend share in the use of sensors, one human-based and the other mechanical. The adoption of sensors, mobile apps and otherwise, appears to be leading to a burst of creativity in state and local governments.
Boston's chief vehicle for connecting with residents is its Citizens Connect app. The city will release version 4.0 this summer, with changes that will make it easier for city workers to connect directly with residents.