Crowdsourcing Data Collection in the Highway Sector 

Date 30.10.2023
Category Crowdsourcing Data Collection in the Highway Sector 
Author LJ Stocks

Data has never been a hotter commodity. At our fingertips every second of the day, we are constantly creating, consuming and transmitting data. With a large proportion of the population in possession of a smart phone, capable of processing data wherever they are, there is a great potential for the public to assist in a wide range of data collection tasks. Google has been using the public as a source of data for many years, helping with machine learning through their captchas, and as we look to drive efficiencies and cost savings across local authorities, crowdsourcing data appears to be a viable option for a wide range of purposes. 

Assessing the potential 

The moment we step out of our front doors and onto a public footpath or road, we have the potential to assist with data capture. The general public have the ability to cover a greater area of the highway than inspectors, and this offers the opportunity for large-scale data collection over a far reduced period of time. This includes simple data collection from phones which already hold all the necessary technology required. Uses could include: 

  • Hi-res, three-axis accelerometers and GPS tracking built into phones, used with an app, could record how vehicles are moving in order to assess road roughness and condition. 

  • Real time flood reports using precise GPS allow an accurate image to be created for fast response or alert. 

  • Crowdsourcing could turn road users into traffic sensors, highlighting congestion by providing real time data to quickly improve operations. 

Existing use cases 

There are many existing case studies of how crowdsourced data has had a global impact. 

A government project in Spain encouraged citizens to report sightings of the Asian tiger mosquito which was known for carrying the Zika virus. This was fed into an online interactive map, and citizens could then be targeted with relevant advice. ‘Mosquito Alert’ relied on smartphone cameras, making data collection straightforward and guaranteeing success. 

The National Biodiversity Centre Ireland asked the public to submit observations to increase the understanding of biodiversity-related matters within Ireland. Contributors provided any available information about birds, amphibians and reptiles, bumblebees, dragonflies and more, creating a picture of species and sites across Ireland. Over 213,000 records have been submitted, adding to the existing database and totalling over 4 million records. It also feeds into the Global Biodiversity Information Facility; a network of 90 worldwide participants working on an open biodiversity data infrastructure. This allows anyone, anywhere, to access data about all types of life on earth, shared across national boundaries. There are currently over 700 million records. 

More than half of all state and many local transportation agencies in America already use some form of crowdsourcing, offering visibility into suburban and rural networks where roadway sensor technology is not affordable. They integrate multiple sources of crowdsourced data with traditional sensor and automated vehicle location data to implement their winter operations, identifying areas that need attention. They also use crowdsourced data to identify and respond to road defects and manage traffic. The Indiana Department of Transportation reported that this method brings incidents to their attention over 10 minutes sooner than other methods, and captures incidents that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

Looking at the benefits 

Crowdsourcing data allows a large amount of data to be gathered quickly and inexpensively. With this great number of data points, accuracy is increased and decisions can be made more quickly. This in turn allows for quicker development, with feedback collected faster for a better understanding of the project. 

But with this great potential there comes a few hurdles to clear – how do we ensure the data is accurate? How do we encourage people to get involved? And how do we ensure people aren’t putting themselves at risk on the public highway? There needs to be a robust and targeted plan, as crowdsourcing doesn’t really work without a crowd! Local authority areas are rigidly defined, and this may well provide a useful clear boundary for councils to work within, using trials and testing incentives. 

The Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) has developed an app for citizen reporting, encouraging people to become a ‘UDOT Citizen Reporter’. Users can submit hazardous road conditions alongside comments. This simple, user friendly method is a familiar process to most, creating a simple and efficient option to collecting data. This model could easily be replicated or adjusted to suit local authority areas.  

With a vast amount of ‘people power’ at our disposal, there is huge potential to cut costs and speed up data collection, and therefore action, for local authorities.