michael nagle about large projects personal projects


with eliot kristan, ben hitov, raphael luckom

summer 2011

In 2011, the department of New Urban Mechanics in Boston -- an experimental group in the city's government -- launched a challenge on Innocentive about detecting potholes with smartphones. Basically, it was a contest to see who could write effective pothole detecting app, given the changing nature of potholes as some get filled in and others decay.

I pulled together a small group of people to work on this over the summer of 2011 -- there were four core members, and a handful or people who came in and out. From a social perspective, I was interested in the ranger of skill that the project ended up accomodating -- from people who had significant experience in industry to people who were just curious about programming. The informal nature of the project helped accomodate that range, to the degree that we could.

The app was primarily putting pre-existing research into practice -- it turns out with 3-d accelerometer information, differentiating things like train tracks and speed bumps which hit both wheels to things like potholes which one is, on a first pass, not too hard to do.

Our project ended up being one of three winning submissions out of several hundred, and was a prototype that informed later development of this project by the City of Boston.

For me the project had meaning in terms of the social experience -- taking a real world problem, and through a well-crafted problem, having that be an experience that is both a learning and doing experience. I came to feel at sprout more and more that the learning experiences that I was most interested in and seemed to be the most powerful for the learner were ones where the experience wasn't capital E educational, but just was a challenging and interesting experience. The streetbump project was a nice proof of concept that there are projects suggested by the real world (civic maintenance) that are still in reach for a community to tackle/