Gig workers with smartphones can help set infrastructure priorities

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With all the focus on whether Congress will enact a major infrastructure law to rebuild the United States’ roads, bridges, railways, etc., nobody seems to be paying attention to the elephant in the room: Even if the legislation is passed, where do we begin? You might be surprised to learn that the gig economy has an app for that.

We can and should hire professional consultants and other experts to review our infrastructure systems to see what needs the most immediate attention, but the sheer number of roads, bridges, dams and other critical infrastructure in the U.S. makes the job of prioritizing daunting.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, there are over 4 million miles of public roads, 617,000 bridges, 91,000 dams and 140,000 rail miles in the U.S. These are massive statistics.

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So as soon as an infrastructure bill passes, the big questions will be: Where do we begin, and how do we set priorities — expeditiously and at minimum cost, at least for the first step? The next step would be to bring in professional engineers and experts to begin the rebuilding process.

There are some obvious examples of infrastructure systems needing immediate, prioritized attention (see the Sidney Sherman Bridge in Houston, which had to be shut down a few years ago for a corroded bridge bearing and was recently classified as “structurally deficient”).

Fortunately, there is another massive statistic out there that can help: 216 million. That is the approximate number of U.S. adults that own a smartphone. Pew Research Center recently found that 85% of all U.S. adults own a smartphone, which, needless to say, is the highest it’s ever been. Even enlisting just a small percentage of the 216 million smartphone users out there can help immensely with this task.

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Federal, state and local governments can and should consider the awesome (and relatively inexpensive) power of our smartphones and the gig economy. Gig workers can be enlisted to use the smartphones that they already own to provide inspection data and photographs of the key identified roads, bridges, dams and rails in the 50 states. The data and photos they collect can then be instantly transmitted to a national database for review and evaluation by professional engineers and consultants.

I know this can be done because my colleagues and I have done this before. We tap into a worldwide network of gig workers (data collectors or data contributors) operating from an open source app and with full transparency.

Our projects have involved contributors photographing and documenting sewer access points, bridges, water access points and other infrastructure systems. We even partnered with a major nonprofit on behalf of USAID’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance to bolster its Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) Program by providing rapid WASH needs assessments wherein our contributors can be mobilized on an emergency basis to provide photographs and other data on water access, sanitation and hygiene in Colombia.

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Why can’t we do the same for bridges, roads, tunnels and other infrastructure here in the U.S.? This technology needs to be scaled, and we know it can be done.

It’s simple — and the solution is in plain sight. Our smartphones and gig workers allow us to set priorities using their photos and input from what their eyes are seeing, and then professional experts can follow up to begin implementation. There are already provisions in the Senate bill that could provide funding for this type of advanced technology research. And there is an ongoing need, even after repairs are done, to monitor the condition of our highways, bridges and tunnels.

Using this gig-worker-enabled smartphone technology will not only help our federal, state and local governments set priorities quickly; it will also allow thousands of everyday Americans to be part of the rebuilding process. This has the added benefit of democratizing the job of fixing our infrastructure and creating a grassroots movement of people using their own smartphones to help rebuild and repair U.S. infrastructure for the current and future generations.

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