A plague of potholes – citizen science may not be enough

On pothole patrol. Thanks to Amanda Slater https://www.flickr.com/photos/pikerslanefarm/

Potholes are one of those things that get everyone united in righteous indignation “Harumph, they should do something about this!” No one is going to suggest that potholes are desirable but are we too eager to bash the local authorities who are tasked with spending our taxes to keep the roads in good condition?

The Telegraph and several other papers reported last week on the “plague of potholes” identified by the AA’s recent Streetwatch Survey. The report summarises the results of a 1000 informal surveys undertaken by volunteers walking their local areas and recording potholes, repaired potholes and potholes marked for repair (I’m not sure how you would identify a repaired pothole) along a 30-60 minute walk. The report includes a load of simple thematic maps which take a bit of time to understand as the colouring of each map represents the ranking of that region for one of the survey questions. The survey found that the North East and Scotland are the “pothole plague” black spots of GB.

Edmund King provides several choice quotes in his introduction including

“Many councils have been swamped by the deluge of potholes, yet the evidence from the South West suggests the problem can be turned round. Although we are sympathetic with the plight that councils find themselves in austere times, the fact remains that we are seeing the legacy of a ‘Cinderella’ approach to road maintenance funding over many years”

Cllr Peter Box, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Economy and Transport Board responded

“Parts of the country which have milder winters have less destruction wreaked on their roads by ice. Ranking geographical areas without taking this major factor into account displays a fundamental lack of understanding about road maintenance.”

Unfortunately the AA have not provided any detail as to how they calculated their rankings. Did they adjust their results for the the number of survey participants in each area, the distances and road types they covered, the road miles in each region, highways budgets, the level of utility streetworks in the preceding years (a significant factor in potholes) or, perhaps most importantly, regional patterns of severe winter weather? We have a number of maps but none of the underlying data and methodology that would enable us to evaluate their conclusions.

I am not suggesting that harnessing concerned citizens to survey the state of our roads could not be a useful contribution to the discussion about road maintenance practices, policies and budgets. But this type of citizen science has the potential to be skewed and misunderstood unless there is an opportunity for other “concerned citizens” to review the data and question the conclusions drawn by the lobby group sponsoring the survey.

Sounds like we need some #OpenData from the Streetwatch Survey to mash up with some #OpenWeatherData if the Met Office could oblige and some road length data which we can get from #OSOpenData(C).

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