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Seeing the Snow for the Blizzard: Using Mobile for Government Oversight

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, January 11 2011

Over on his company blog, Mobile Commons*' Jed Alpert has a quick Q&A with the digital editor of WNYC's program The Takeaway, Jim Colgan, about a project the public radio station did to allow New Yorkers to document whether or not their street had been plowed after a particularly nasty snowstorm that began on Dec. 26.

Here's what Colgan told Alpert:

First, the blizzard happened. And we were reporting on that. And then it seemed very quickly the story became about the cleanup, and how much the city was doing to plow the streets. There were reports there were delays, and there were a lot of complaints.

[Mayor Michael] Bloomberg had a press conference. He said that all the streets were going to be plowed by Thursday morning. And he was saying that everything was okay – that things were under control.

So we said, let’s ask people. That way, we can get a snapshot of where the city plows have actually reached. We knew we wanted to have an on-air component because we wanted to hear people’s voices, but we also knew we wanted a snapshot we could map. That’s why we thought texting was the best way to go.

Members of Bloomberg's administration admitted on Monday to making a slew of mistakes as it struggled to handle that storm's aftermath. It was an uncharacteristically frank moment for city officials in the era of Bloomberg, who has sought to project an unflappable persona of capability, efficiency and order in his nine years in office.

But it wasn't anything that many New Yorkers hadn't already guessed, or heard on the radio. WNYC, which has a long record of experimentation in crowdsourcing and working with new forms online, gave listeners the chance to report conditions on their streets by texting PLOW to a shortcode it controlled. Then, readers could follow up by calling in and leaving their story in a voice mail message. WNYC used Google Fusion Tables to map each report, and the result was embedded onto a page of the radio station's website.

Which isn't to say that tech tools are the only way to go. News outlets throughout the city reported stories on the city's failure to clean up, and New York City Public Advocate Bill de Blasio issued a report on Dec. 31 based on 933 complaints his office cataloged in the aftermath of the storm.

There are some compelling quotes from that report, too, including anecdotes from a mother trying to get her sick child to a doctor and a disabled person who was completely stuck at home thanks to the unplowed streets. It's a decidedly low-tech affair, de Blasio's summation; the most sophisticated it gets are some charts that look like they were made in Excel. It's hard to argue that video, or audio, or a map of some kind, wouldn't better make the point that people were really suffering due to the city's mistakes — but the message gets across regardless.

A twist on the use of technology to expose the city's failings through first-hand reports, though, is that part of the Bloomberg administration's mea culpa in the aftermath of the late December storm was to promise to use mobile devices to improve its response. A report on the city's handling of the last snowstorm recommended, among other things, that every snow plow have a GPS-enabled mobile phone. This would allow supervisors to track progress and, presumably, change deployment on the fly if necessary.

The city would also, according to the report, use its Street Conditions Observation Unit teams — inspectors who cruise city streets in light vehicles and report quality-of-life issues — to live stream video from trouble spots back to the city Department of Sanitation, the Office of Emergency Management, and the mayor's office.

While the same Bloomberg administration report says the city would be more open with New Yorkers about what was slated to get done and when, with a city website that would provide information in a storm, there's no telling if the really useful stuff — like location data from those snow plows, which developers could use to build real-time maps for residents to use to figure out if and when their street would be cleaned of snow — would ever be accessible to the public. I've reached out to the city's Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which normally handles issues like the city's 311 system and data delivery, and will update if I get a reply.

* Disclosure: Our founder, Andrew Rasiej, is an investor in Mobile Commons, which WNYC used to receive text and voice messages.