Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Keeping track of the Roads


The state of Bangalore’s roads has become pathetic. At least the roads on which I drive frequently. Old Airport Road has been dug every now and then which makes it difficult to ascertain whether the pot hole you encountered was caused by the digging or by the degradation of the road. The stretch from Garuda Mall to Hosmat Hospital had such deep potholes that when I accidently drove over one, the impact was so strong that the attachment holding the headlight broke on the left side. The potholes were filled recently.

But it begs the question why did we have potholes in the first place? When were the roads  last rebuilt? If my memory does not fail me, it was probably around a year and a half ago, somewhere between January and May 2009 (though I cannot be cent percent sure). The roads were built by the present state government, which came to power in May 2008 and it was done during late winter/spring well in advance of the monsoons, so my timing cannot be off by much (If you thought the monsoons only affected when the rice paddies are sown, well there you go.)

Is that the life of our roads? I searched on Google and after trying a few different keywords came across this site, where somebody has answered a similar question. So an asphalt road’s life may vary from 10-20 years depending on various factors. That is a far cry from a road life of 2 years over here. In fact, I am not even sure if all the roads in Bangalore have the same life.

One of the public figures that I follow on twitter, tweeted a few months back that he/she had spoken to someone who was into construction of roads. The roads they had developed in Orissa would last longer than the roads they had developed in Maharashtra even thought the Tender amount was the same. This was because in Maharashtra to win the contract they had to bribe, so accordingly the contractor used less quality materials for development of roads in Maharashtra, so that his business remains viable. ( I would link to the specific tweet if I could find it)

It is hard to believe that such cases do not happen throughout the country. Read this article in the Forbes for instance. Even if corruption cases are uncovered, they are silently shut down due to political pressure.

Is there anyway we can fight this? An idea occurred to me when I read this and this tweet by Indus Khaitan. Why not build an app which tracks all the data related to building of roads which is integrated with google maps and location enabled? Lets again take the case of the stretch of road from Garuda Mall to Hosmat Hospital and also assume that our app (lets call it betterroads) is available. I access the app from my smartphone which is GPS enabled.


It automatically maps my current location to the road and pops up a map with information about the road such as when was it last built/relaid, the expected life, cost of building the road, contractor who built etc. All this info can be available with the app through RTI. Now since I encountered a pot-hole, I can report a pothole and also rate the road.  I can also take a pic of the pothole and upload it on the app. So can anybody else. Now since the road is in a bad shape in 2010 whereas its expected life was till 2014, the following steps could be taken :

1) The road is relaid.

2) It is determined whether any digging etc from other government departments reduced the life of the road.

3) If not, the contractor is blacklisted from participating in any future government contracts.

Imagine if such a thing were possible for each and every road in this country. Wouldn’t that be awesome? Not only would one be able to report bad roads, but be able to pin point possible instances of corruption.

So why not build such an app? What are the challenges? Well I think an app to report potholes is pretty much possible because that is essentially a mashup of Google maps with Crowdsourced data, even though this shall have challenges such as ensuring the data remians relevant and provides true picture. No point in having a road reported a bad when it has been repaired recently.

The bigger challenge comes when you want to have the data about road construction from the government through RTI. Getting and organizing this data in the current scenario is a gargantuan task in itself and probably needs an NGO to focus on this. All the roads on  Google maps will have to be marked according to the way contracts are awarded for road construction. i.e in the db of the app, the stretch of Old Airport Road from Diamond District to Pizza Hut Signal could be one row (road id : 1) in the db whereas from Pizza Hut to Marthahalli would be a different row(road id: 2), even though the whole thing is Old Airport Road. This could be because contracts for repair of the first stretch could be given out at a different time and to a different contractor and if we are capturing this information then we have mark roads accordingly.

Also, ensuring that data is provided by the government, in the format that is required, consistently is going to be a challenge. I am not even sure what and how does the government track. The essential thing to ease the whole thing would be digitization of government records and provide the data to NGO’s and researchers through an RTI api. Even after the data is available, there are going to be many issues such as agreeing to a road life at given cost, ensuring government agencies act etc. All this just reinforces the adage that “Technology is just an enabler” and the app in itself is not going to solve problems overnight.

Then what is the point of discussing all this? Well for starters this can be tried at a small scale, say only Bangalore. That would be the MVP for this idea. No need to wait for government to digitize its records. File RTI’s and manually get the data for Bangalore or a smaller part of Bangalore and develop the app. See if people use it. After all, as someone once told me, when Naukri.com started, they were manually entering jobs into their website.

Perhaps a few techies along with an NGO such as Janagraha could take a shot at it. What do you think? Worth a try?


  1. I like your proposed idea and the thought process behind it.

    Even I had a similar idea where citizens could report the status of roads, and this repository of information could be used for tracking efficiency of government departments/contractors. (And some really smart person in the government could actually use it as an e-gov project as well to interface directly with public and address their complaints, but that day is far away yet. :-))

    Let's say for Bangalore, we are able to collect data for all the roads and we are able to grade them. (e.g. Grade A to E). Over a period of time, we can easily track the improvement or deterioration in the road network. e.g. There were only 10% Grade A roads (best) 3 years back, and now the number has gone up to 14% and so on.

    So rather than going by perceptions, we have hard data to go by and hopefully it can be used in some way to bring in accountability at some places.

    Your idea to include information like contractor name and expected life term in an online app is very good. A really crazy idea I once discussed with a friend was to actually put the name of the contractor and expected life metric next to the road itself. If that road goes bad, the public should know who the hell built it. Anonymity gives a chance to get away with shoddy work, but once the name is up their for everyone to see, it hopefully might bring in better results.

  2. hi Aditya,

    Interesting thoughts indeed and pretty much what I had in mind. The real challenge is to get the government agency on board. This can and will happen in due course of time. The important thing is to get the idea out to the public so that they know what to demand from their representatives ( aka MPs, MLAs etc).

    As for including the contractor name on the side of the road, I remember in 2006 when I had moved to Bangalore, there were signs for the Road Widening project at Marthahalli which had the contractor name and completion date on it. Yet, the work did not start after the given date. So a lot of it has to do with the indifferent 'chalta hai' attitude that we Indians have.