Navigating Blizzards with Plow-Tracking Tools

Navigating Blizzards with Plow-Tracking Tools

Winter snow can wreak havoc with road travel, a reality many municipal governments are addressing with technological solutions.

Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.

People now have new tools to help out as the flakes fly this winter, ranging from websites to apps that detail information on snow plow routes, road conditions, and which neighbors need help shoveling a sidewalk.

Just ahead of the its first snow event of the season, the city of Chicago launched the website, complete with a tracker showing the location of city plows as they clear the streets. During major snow cleanup efforts, the city will activate the “Plow Tracker” map, allowing the public to see, in real-time, the progress of city snow plows and make snow removal efforts more transparent.

The website describes the PlowTracker feature as part of an effort to keep streets clear and help city government communicate more effectively with citizens.

“ is an important resource that not only informs Chicagoans about how they can help their neighbors and allows them to see the city’s snow program in action during severe weather,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel at a press conference.

In addition to giving constituents an idea of the city crew’s progress and road conditions, the website also aims to dispel myths that snow plow routes favor certain city areas, like those of powerful politicians. This is Chicago, after all, and Emanuel touts transparency.

Other features of the site include the “Adopt a Sidewalk” app, which allows users to claim sidewalks to shovel on an interactive map and share snow shovels and other equipment with neighbors, giving them a platform to organize and take part in coordinated efforts in their own neighborhoods.

The website’s “Snow Corps” function connects volunteers with elderly and disabled residents with a click of a button, and to take advantage of the Windy City’s homegrown tech talent, a Winter Apps section helps Chicago-area app developers build new programs.

Finally, for those who missed all the real-time action and awoke to find their car missing, helps users learn if the city towed their vehicle and where cars are located.

On the other side of Lake Michigan, officials in neighboring Michigan’s Wayne County, which includes the city of Detroit, developed Compass, an interactive website that lets people see where the county’s salt trucks are and which roads crews have plowed, helping residents plan safer routes.

In addition, Compass lets people view road conditions online from the driver’s perspective, since a percentage of the snow-clearing vehicles feature onboard video cameras that send footage on a two-minute delay.

Compass pulls information every 10 seconds from the county’s fleet of trucks to ensure timely updates.

The information presented on Compass is culled from a variety of sources, including the Internet, weather data, Google traffic, state traffic cameras, and fleet management data, giving residents access to it all in one place.

Wayne County officials, like those in Chicago, point to the reassurance the system gives residents that the county does have its trucks out on the road and aren’t sitting on their hands in the middle of a snowstorm.

“There’s a practical side of it — being able to see what’s clean and what’s not [and] being able to see video of the roads that have been cleaned,” Zayd Allebban, director of enterprise applications for Wayne County, said. “But then on the other side of it, it’s an accountability and transparency thing. It is taxpayer money that is funding all this, so they certainly have a right to see exactly what we are doing with it.”

The next upgrade of Compass will install video cameras on the rest of the salt trucks in the county’s fleet, and developers are hoping to roll out an even more interactive version of the system so citizens can report back information, like particularly bad roads that need attention.

While Compass is only available as a website, the county is in the midst of developing a mobile app version of Compass for both iOS and Android devices.

Chicago’s plow tracker will likely be tweaked as well. Preliminary feedback from its trial run show the delayed page loading may have caused the overload on the server, and some critics suggest Chicago officials should incorporate user feedback for future updates.

With at least two months left of winter weather, both Detroit and Chicago can expect more chances to test and tweak their online tools to make sure citizens have immediate information when navigating the next big blizzard.

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