Street Bump – useful but not ready for prime time engineering

Today I tried out Street Bump – a mobile application designed and developed by Connected Bits, LLC and produced by the Mayor's office of Boston. This application, available for the iPhone, picks up bumps in the road as people drive along a street with their phone. Because smoothness or "the ride" is one component we assess when we rate roadway condition, I thought it would be worthwhile test driving the application, literally.

Street Bump MapSo far, I only tested it on two trips, and here's what I observed. My phone measured one bump on my first trip along 3.44 miles of mainly country roads and three bumps along 3.10 miles of the same route, but traveling in the opposite direction. The first bump on the first trip seemed to occur as we crossed the centerline to turn into a driveway and was plotted in an accurate location. On the second trip, I did not catch where the first bump showed up. The second seemed to occur when I switched the sound on while recording my trip, and it accurately plotted the location where I was when I did this. (I also want to mention I was a passenger on both trips.) The third bump occurred when we moved across a rough transition from a recent paving job onto the older pavement, but this one did not accurately plot. The bump had been in the westbound lane of a road we had turned left onto, but the map plotted it in the northbound lane of the road we had been traveling along before turning.

One feature I thought of right away that would be helpful is an indication showing me the roads where I have already driven. Right now, only bumps appear to be plotted. So if no bumps are recorded along a street, there is no documentation that I have checked that route and it is clear of bumps. It would also be helpful if I could delete specific bumps like the one that seemed to be caused by me turning my sound on. Currently the application only allows you to delete an entire trip.

Steet Bump MeasurementI did notice there seems to be a type of measurement of the roughness of the bump which is interesting. And while this could be useful in indicating the severity of the road condition, smoothness is only one factor engineers look at when rating a road. At work, we've been using the Pavement Surface Evaluation and Rating Asphalt PASER Manual to rate our roads. The method used in this manual considers cracking including the type of cracks, rutting, flushing, raveling, and weathering for example. Then a rating is assigned from one to ten with ten being the best based on the severity of these factors. Of course after establishing the rating, there are other elements to look at when choosing roads for repair such as traffic counts and funding.

To be fair to the developer, I don't think they intended for the application to be used by engineers for rating roads. But since it was produced by a city, I was trying to figure out how a map showing bumps picked up by people driving through our town could be used by our city staff. One of the concerns I would have is if actions such as crossing a centerline, turning into a driveway, and changing the volume or sound settings on the phone causes a bump to be recorded, we could be wasting staff time sending people out to check out each bump. And I would be worried that people, or in some cities elected officials, might look at those maps online and contact us wondering what is wrong and why we are not doing something about the bump when perhaps the bump is not a true reflection of the road condition. But I could see how it would be useful to consult while we are out rating roads as one more piece of data to consider. And there is a lot of potential as it becomes more widely used and other features added.

So if you're a transportation professional, what are your thoughts of apps like this and the expectations people have of their transportation agencies based on the output from these type of applications? As an example of how the data is presented publicly, here's the map for Boston showing what has been recorded so far in the area shown.

Street Bump Map in Boston



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 30

Day 30

Jury Duty

Not sure if anyone realized I never uploaded an article yesterday, but I didn't post because I was called for jury duty. So I had to take the day off to go to that. It was interesting – I got as far as being questioned as a possible juror, but the defendent's attorney said I wasn't acceptable or whatever the term is when you are rejected. The case was in criminal court, and the defendent was accused of possession and sale of a controlled substance. I figured they didn't want me because I work with police and attorneys all the time, but who really knows.

Driveway Paving

Anyway, when I returned today to work, I tried to catch up on emails. Then another engineer and I went out to inspect the installation of an asphalt driveway. Normally we don't get too involved in something like this. But in this case, we have been trying to help out with a drainage concern, and because the situation is not ideal, we wanted to be there to do the best we could to improve the situation. The contractor ended up doing a good job considering what we had asked him to do by hand with asphalt. One of these days I'll try to get a photo and put it up so you can see the end result. 

Road Project

That ended up taking most of the morning, so then in the afternoon I came up with a preliminary list of roads to resurface next year so the project engineer can begin measuring to calculate the quantities and cost. We still are not done driving all the roads, but we wanted to get started on something. 

Our intern was also in today so I started him on helping me calculate a preliminary estimate for another job. He did fairly well for his first time using an engineering scale and working with a set of old plans of the area.

Smoke from Minnesota in Illinois?

We also had a lot of people calling to complain about all the smoke in the city and the smell. I had noticed it when I walked home for lunch and just thought someone was illegally burning. But we eventually found out it's from fires that are burning in Minnesota. That's amazing that smoke can travel that far. And it makes me wonder how bad it must be in Minnesota for those people if it's this bad down here. I hope everyone up there is ok and safe. Here's the link to the weather report because it's just so unbelievable: NWS Special Weather Report Sept 13, 2011 Geneva

Tomorrow I will be at a seminar, but will still try to post something online about it at the end of the day.


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 27

Day 27

Road Project

Asphalt Paving on Anderson Blvd in Geneva IL

Now that our road project is substantially complete, we've been working on getting out a pay estimate. The project engineer prepared the estimate late last week and gave it to me yesterday. So this morning, I spent some time checking over the final quantities and comparing them to the original quantities in the contract. There was some additional work due to a bad base we discovered on one roadway, and we added striping. However we had also deleted some work that ended up not really being needed. So the net result is not too far off the original contract price, and we are defnitely below budget. It looks like there will be one final payout sometime in the next month after the contractor agrees to final quantities.

We also spent a portion of the day driving some more roads for next year. Unfortunately the ones we looked at had deteriorated quite a bit from last year. At this point, I wish we could fix all of them that are in bad  condition, but we just don't have the funds to do it all at once. I was thinking about this the other day after hearing about the jobs bill our president has been talking about. I thought, if only the federal government could set up significant funding for infrastructure in regular communities like ours for simple resurfacing or reconstruction jobs. And in order to spend the funds quickly, they could set it up so the money could be spent on engineering and construction, but  create a condition that the engineering must be done within a year and construction the next year. And if for some reason the engineering did not make the deadline, the construction funds would not be released. This would allow for engineering to be paid for, yet by putting penalities in contracts for failure to complete engineering on time, agencies would ensure the engineering would not be dragged out. Of course, the funds would have to be distributed through some funding mechanism other than FAU or STP funds. Perhaps they could follow what Kansas DOT does and have state DOTs "trade" their state funds for federal funds allocated to local governments. This ensures cumbersome requirements would not be imposed on the projects and allows funding to be used for any road in the city or county – not just federal routes. And this would put a lot of people to work fast. But they never ask us so I doubt an idea like this is even on their horizon.

Water Main Project

Later in the morning a few of us met with the owner of the property through which we'd like to run a water main. We discussed the project and where we would be interested in placing the line. Based on the discussion, I now will move forward to have the area surveyed to find out the exact locations of the property lines and find out any building setbacks that would affect any future construction on the property.

Parking Lot Project

Because the planning commission will meet tomorrow night to consider our request to build a parking lot in the downtown area, we spent some time getting together the necessary information and drawings. We also discussed the project and made sure we had the answers for any possible questions that might come up.

Development Project

At the end of the day, a few of us met at city hall to discuss a proposed development in our city. We discussed issues related to access and decided we will contact the county to continue discussions about potential solutions. 


Today an engineering firm also brought in some drawings for a project where they had already installed a utility line in our right of way and neglected to get a right of way permit. There's some concern over where they installed it, and it doesn't match the location shown on the plans they dropped off. Their indication of the right of way also does not seem to be at the location where we believe it to be. So we'll be working with them to resolve this issue.




A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 26

Day 26

Coding payouts

I started the day going through some emails. Then the other engineers and I went over some recent pay requests and the budget line items to make sure we were coding everything correctly. We wanted to do this because our finance department has gone though and organized our funds into a better structure so this year we have some new codes to work with. This is one part of the job that I think is only learned through on-the-job training. Everything we do has to be paid for and accounted for in some way, so it's important to track it all through the use of account numbers. Having worked for a consultant for a while many years ago, I realize this also happens in the private sector. However, in government, we seem to have more rules and restrictions placed upon the accounts. So we need to make sure only certain expenditures are paid for by certain accounts. For example anything coded to the Motor Fuel Tax account must be an IDOT-approved expenditure. (There's actually a lot to learn about MFT accounting that I couldn't possibly cover in one paragraph!)

GIS – Address and Building Layers

Most of the morning was then spent meeting with staff from fire and police. We discussed some GIS issues and worked together to figure out how to best handle addressing and building footprint layers and updates. Right now we don't have a program to track our address assignments or changes, but we are finding we really do need something that allows everyone to know about a change in an address. And we need something that allows certain people to "sign off" when they perform an address-related function or allows them to "acknowledge" that they've received a change. The staff person for the police department came up with an excellent and easily implemented suggestion to handle this: an Adobe Acrobat form that we can all edit. So later this week, I am going to work on setting this up. Then we'll discuss it at our next GIS team meeting and finalize the format.

Road Resurfacing

This afternoon we went back out to look at the roads. Most of the sections we drove today were in good condition, but we did find a few that look like they will need to be resurfaced next year. 


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 25


Day 25

Water Main Extension

Most of the first half of my morning was spent working on a cost estimate for the water main extension I have designed. I also filled out all the IEPA permits for the project and had our water superintendent sign them. 

PVC Pipe

Then I filled out the EcoCat to determine if there were any endangered species. This came back negative which is what I suspected – the area through which  the water main will go is an abandoned railroad and quarry that is now a park within our city. Next I will have to write a letter to the Historic Preservation to ask them to determine if there are any historic preservation issues with the site. But again, I suspect based on the previous uses on the site that this will also come back negative.

Storm Sewer Project

During the last part of the morning, I dropped off the legal description for the easement we will need to install storm sewer behind some homes on the east side of town. There's signficiant backyard flooding in this area so we will install a couple inlets and tie them into our storm sewer. But because the inlets need to be in the backyards, the city will need an easement. Our policy is that the homeowner needs to prepare the easement document so once we get this, I will submit it for council consideration. If they approve it, we will install the storm sewer.

Miscellaneous Resident Concerns

We also checked out  a drainage concern a neighbor had about some work that took place near their property. Then we checked out a report of someone dumping brush on city property and possibly obstructing a drainage way. We found the brush pile which was significant and told the people who had been dumping it that it needed to be moved asap.

Road Project

In the afternoon, we continued our task of driving the roads to determine road conditions.

Other stuff

A couple of us went out to lunch today with someone who had worked here earlier in the year as an intern. It was great to touch base with her and find out what she was up to and hear how GIS is handled where she works now. I was thinking earlier today, we have had five interns so far this year. They have all been great workers, and they helped us get a lot of work done.

Social Media/Communication/Customer Service Workshop!!!

Then at the end of the day, I spoke with the education coordinator for our local APWA chapter. We are planning a communication/social media/customer service workshop in October. We want to offer a fun and engaging day that helps everyone learn how to make the most of the tools that are out there. So if you know of anyone in the Chicago Metro area doing great and interesting things with social media/communication/customer service or public outreach, let me know. We'd love to have them participate in our workshop. We could even remote in people, so if you don't live or work around here and have something great to present, we could remote you in through Skype or other methods.

Hope everyone has an awesome weekend! and keep our public works colleagues who are handling the aftermath of Hurricane Irene in your thoughts and prayers!


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 24

Day 24


Safety Meeting

Today was the first Thursday of the month and that means safety meeting day! The whole public works staff attends the monthly safety meeting, and the topic today was backhoe safety. If I get a chance I'll put up a post on it later this week because it was interesting and probably would make a good article.

Cemetery Maintenance

After learning about how to safely operate and transport backhoes, we met with someone who provides cemetery services. Right now we have one person who is responsible for all the maintenance in the two cemeteries we own. We do have some summer help, but there's still a lot of work to be done. And when our help goes back to school, we are back down to one person. Several members of the public have indicated they want increased maintenance services so we are looking at ideas for meeting their requests. One idea is to bid out the maintenance and see if it is cheaper to hire it out than use staff members. During the meeting today we learned about what services companies provide and what other cemeteries they take care of. At this point we are just researching. Our city council will have to make the final decision on whether or not we bid this out or continue to use staff.

Overweight vehicles

Something strange did happen during the morning. Someone called me to complain about getting a ticket from our police for having an overweight vehicle. He also wanted to ask me several questions about this. It was a little difficult answering all of them because our office only handles issuing permits for overweight vehicles. The police enforce the overweight vehicle limits on our streets. I did read him the ordinance explaining we do not allow any trucks over 6 tons on roads unless indicated otherwise and told him the ordinance was available online. So he paraphrased what I said to mean that he, as a landscaper, was not allowed to provide services to residents in our community. I tried to explain this was not what I said and that he could solve the problem by distributing his load between two vehicles to get it below 6 tons and that I've seen other companies doing this. But he did not seem to think this would be an option. I also tried to suggest taking his setup to a truck scale and working with the loading to get it below 6 tons. But he didn't know where a scale was and having only been here for two years, I wasn't sure where the closest one was either. 

He also asked many more questions that were more related to how the police ticket and how they determine when a load is overweight, but I could not answer him since we do not deal with that in my office. He was also frustrated because he must have called other cities and they gave him information that was different from what we were giving him. I tried to explain every city has different ordinances so that's probably why he was getting different answers from different cities. I offered to find out how we could issue him an overweight permit so he could legally drive his load on the streets, but he didn't want me to ask about the process. He kept suggesting we are only issuing tickets to drive up revenue, and he said it was a stupid law. Then he got angry and hung up on me.

Emergency Utility Work

Then right before lunch I received a call from a utility company asking for verbal approval to perform an emergency repair in our downtown. These make me nervous because it's difficult to quickly assess the situation and think of everything that needs to be determined in order to proceed with something like this. But the person said the work would only be in the parkway and was desperately needed because the whole area of the city south of the downtown had no service. So after he promised to be safe and use proper traffic control and restore the area within a couple days, I told him it was ok to proceed. After I got in from lunch, one of the engineers asked me who gave approval for a utility to bore under the railroad. What? I explained what I had given approval for. Then one of the other staff members and I decided to go visit the work site. Meanwhile the person who had asked for the approval called back and said he had no idea it was going to go under the railroad. So he agreed to meet us there. In the end, it all worked out. They ended up calling the railroad, and two guys from the railroad showed up to flag and assist. Our locator marked out what he needed to locate. And they started digging. Because I had to deal with all this, I ended up missing a meeting with a landscaper for our parking lot, but the project engineer was able to go instead.

Rating the Roads

Then we all finished up the day checking out the road conditions in the next area of town to be inspected.