Passive Data Collection on Pot Holes; 2020 Iowa Caucuses: Political Connections Triumph over Technical Expertise

Robb, Liam, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Powell, Harry, EN-Elec/Computer Engr Dept, University of Virginia
JACQUES, RICHARD, EN-Engineering and Society, University of Virginia

I had intended to have my technical project and STS thesis address related topics. After choosing to create a pothole detection and mapping system, my plan was to focus my STS thesis on innovation in micro-mobility vehicles entering the market. For example, e-scooters had just arrived in Charlottesville, and a spokesperson for Bird Rides had spoken to my STS 2500 class. However, like many in this polarized climate I felt suffocated by the daily onslaught of politics. Talking with others about this feels either like preaching to the choir or talking past each other. While changing my topic will not solve these issues, it has given me more clarity, and allowed me to release some of this tension. Harmful narratives about our election security strongly imply that our elections are insecure or at least carelessly managed. There are obvious ethical concerns with those that push these narratives. We can’t dismiss this narrative: we need a system of diligent, hard-working people to undertake and run a free and fair election system. This is why the Iowa 2020 caucus failure swayed me to change my STS topic.
My technical thesis focuses on the process of detecting and mapping potholes on the Apple Maps interface. Current potholes can be detected using lidar, but the equipment is expensive. While it also seems possible for the technology in modern cars to detect and log potholes using accelerometers, a system like this has not been implemented. Neither has it been used to help notify municipalities about the potholes. Our pothole detection system is designed to be installed in any vehicle on the road today. There are two components to this project: the physical pothole detector and the mobile application used to log the potholes on the mapping software. The pothole detector used an accelerometer to detect spikes in vertical acceleration when a car runs over a pothole. The data is sent to the application and a marker is placed on an Apple Maps interface, since we developed the application in iOS. After successful trials of our prototype, my capstone group discussed ways to partner with municipalities to help streamline their timeline for fixing potholes with quicker detection, notification, and indexing of how severe each pothole is.
My STS thesis examines how the Democratic Party’s failure, during the Iowa caucuses for the 2020 presidential election, to discover flaws in the software commissioned by the party impacted trust in the overall election process. This failure highlights the impact of technology on the security of elections and reveals how the systemic problems that beset the Iowa Democratic Party’s first-in-the-nation caucus of the presidential race ran far deeper than one bad app. The ultimate outcome of the caucus (which candidate won) was insignificant compared to its contribution to the ominous narrative that US elections are not as professionally robust as they were once thought to be.
Working on these projects has taught me the value of evaluating systems with the intent of including intrinsically ethical processes. Minutiae matter. Potholes don’t seem that significant, but they cause $6 billion dollars in vehicle damage in the United States every year. Creating a system that detects them earlier and streamlines a municipality’s program for fixing them could save a lot of money for commuters across the country. This is especially true for rural America where potholes go unreported for much longer. An important factor is that the cost of the system itself not be prohibitive for smaller communities, so that such a system is equitably distributed across the country. In examining the Iowa Caucus failure, even just one actor failing to ensure the security of an election can cause far reaching damage to the public perception of election security. I would say that generally speaking before the problem with the app was discovered, most of the actors involved would have said they were supremely confident in the caucus’ security. This showed me that it is not enough to feel as if you are on the right path ethically speaking; you must constantly be ethically examining your own actions lest you fall into a false sense of security and allow error to creep in.
I would like to thank my capstone team members, Steve Phan and Dalton Applegate for all their hard work on our Capstone project. I truly feel that this was the best team experience I have had at UVA. I would also like to thank my advisors Dr. Harry Powell and Professor Richard Jacques for their help, guidance, and patience throughout the semesters. Lastly I want to thank the thousands of Americans who make our elections possible, even during global pandemics you are the backbone of free and fair elections.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Iowa Democratic Caucus, Actor Network Theory, Pothole Detection

School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Bachelor of Science in Computer Engineering
Technical Advisor: Harry Powell
STS Advisor: Richard Jacques
Technical Team Members: Dalton Applegate, Steve Phan

Issued Date: