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New Yorkers Can Track Snowplows' Movements as "Nemo" Flies Overhead

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, February 8 2013

As New York City prepares for the snowstorm that The Weather Channel has dubbed "Nemo," Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City of New York are promoting the use of PlowNYC to track salt spreading and plowing operations.

The tool first went online last February as a joint project of the Department of Information & Telecommunications (DoITT), the Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Sanitation. The system's launch came almost a year after the Bloomberg administration was severely criticized for its response to a big snowstorm around Christmas in 2010. During that storm, WNYC used a mobile app to source reports from listeners about which streets had been plowed and which hadn't. A sluggish response that left many streets unattended led to cries of havoc from watchdogs and promises from the Bloomberg administration to do better next time.

This system, DoITT explained in a newsletter last year, integrates with the City's existing GIS, wireless infrastructure, websites and more than 1,700 GPS-enabled vehicles. The snowplows transmit approximately 15,000 data points per minute, which are then plotted on a map in color-coded street segments based on the last time the street was serviced, DoITT explained.

"I have used it myself," Bloomberg said at a press conference this afternoon. "You put in your address, and it's updated only once every half an hour, but we color-code the streets when the plow goes down -- it stays one color for the first hour, then it switches to another color, then to another color. And it really gives you what you need to know, whether or not you've been plowed," he said. "At the sanitation garages they have a much more sophisticated and hard-to-use version of that, where they can actually talk to and know where every single plow is, know the number of the plow, and you can look up the name of the driver and know how fast they're going and all that kind of information that is useful for managing the plowing and sanding fleet, but in terms of the public, we want something that's just simple."

New York City's system echoes the Chicago Shovels platform which was launched early last year, which includes a "Plowtracker" tool that allows residents to track the progress of snow plows in real-time. When that tool is activated, it shows Chicagoans exactly where every plow is as it moves.

However, many Chicagoans had some criticism of the PlowTracker. Steven Vance from Grid Chicago outlined in a post at the time several issues he had with the tool.

"It’s a hard map to pay attention to: the plow icons move imperceptibly, or not at all. There was a plow sitting in Rockwell Park that hadn’t moved in over 10 minutes. Maybe the driver was on their lunch break. I think there are many opportunities to share more information with Plow Tracker than just the current location." He suggested that the next version of the tool should be able to give answers to questions like when a street will be plowed and when the last time a plow came.

Chicagoist reported that open government advocate and programmer Derek Eder and some of his friends used the PlowTracker technology and its data on plow locations to create another application called Chicago ClearStreets that "Instead of tracking the plows ... lets users know what streets have been cleared. ... It's a rough draft that already works better than what the city introduced."

ClearStreets also received some updates this past December, ahead of a storm the Weather Channel ominously dubbed "Draco." That included a snow plow leaderboard, as Grid Chicago reported:

It ranks snow plows by the number of traces that have been recorded, which implies the distance they’ve plowed. “I’m all about people rooting for certain plows. We might offer to let people ‘claim’ a plow, name a plow, get updates from that plow. Maybe there could be bets on which will plow the most," [Eder said]

Chicago also has an Adopt-a-Sidewalk tool, which was based off of Code for America's Adopt-a-Hydrant tool, to encourage people to help shovel snow. New York City also has a volunteer snow removal program through its NYC Service operation, though without an interactive tool.

There is some disagreement on what to call the storm — some Twitter users favor #snowpacabra — but whether it's named after Captain Nemo or a mythical blood-sucking beast, New Yorkers will be able to track how city officials are doing cleaning up in its wake.

This post has been corrected to fix an editing error. The storm hitting New York in February 2013 was named after Captain Nemo, not Emperor Nero.