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Fixing Potholes with Math: Techies from Davis Square Work on Solution to Boston's Bumpy Roads

Members of Sprout, a Davis Square research organization, are working on an algorithm that allows Boston to identify the location and severity of potholes.

By 9 p.m. Thursday night, a half dozen science and technology enthusiasts had clustered in a small Davis Square studio at , the relaxed Somerville research group, to come up with a mathematical solution to plug Boston's potholes. 

In June, Boston's mayor, Thomas Menino, offered a $22,500 prize to the Boston resident who could deduce an algorithm that most accurately predicted the presence of a pothole and its potential to cause harm. Contestants would use data collected by volunteers running the StreetBump application on their Android smart phones. 

As of Friday afternoon, 638 people had signed up to solve what Menino has described as "one of Boston residents' biggest issues." 

Among the group was sprout co-founder Michael Nagel, who studied theoretical math at MIT. Nagel said the civically-conscious techies took up the project because they were excited to use their knowledge to improve street conditions in downtown Boston and potentially throughout Greater Boston. It was also another way for them to learn how they all think by "working on a really interesting and deep problem," he said. 

What they've figured out so far
Part of the difficulty of solving the problem lies in distinguishing among potholes, speed bumps and rail road tracks. To do that, Nagel and the group pondered a data set that showed how a vehicle moved when passing over different kinds of bumps. 

He said that driving over rail road tracks causes a car to move equally left and right. Driving over a pothole, however, causes a vehicle to first move up and then down and either left or right. 

A paper published by MIT students on a similar problem gave the group clues to writing a winning algorithm, and Nagel said they could submit an answer as soon as this week. 

He said that if the group happens to win the prize, the money would help maintain the organization, which relies on donations and revenue from the math and science workshops they hold in the studios. 

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