Videos of motorists driving through billowing black smoke were the signature images when a bridge collapsed on Interstate 85 in Atlanta recently, but in that crisis, city officials seized opportunity — going live 12 days later with a dynamic website that uses data in new ways to battle gridlock.
No one was hurt in the dramatic chain of events during evening rush hour on Thursday, March 30. But the fire underneath the elevated highway segment, which is alleged to have been illegally set, spread to plastic conduit being stored underneath by the Georgia Department of Transportation (GDOT) — burning so hot that it brought down the roadway above. I-85 is expected to remain closed in both directions north of downtown until at least June 15.
On Monday, April 17, work on a gas line buckled lanes on Interstate 20, closing it southeast of the city center for nearly two days. In a case of good timing, public and private agencies had debuted CommuteATL.com, their new website optimized for mobile use, the previous week.
Metrics recorded the day of the I-20 shutdown showed more than 6,000 users had already visited the site. By Thursday, April 20, an average of 1,200 views per day had swelled that total to 9,500.
But it incorporates key information, including GDOT 511 camera footage at intersections, and four city data layers: the latest from Waze, real-time Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) train arrival times, Relay Bike Share station locations, and the latest from the 2.7-mile Atlanta Streetcar loop.
It lets drivers and city officials see traffic jams, closed roads, accidents and alerts as they happen. City planners can communicate with Waze about the routes it creates for users and share citizen feedback. Members of the public get a dashboard with live updates on traffic data that let them pick the best path through the city — whether by foot, bicycle, train, streetcar or vehicle.
In a tweet April 14, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed called the site “another tool in the tool box to help you better navigate traffic during this very difficult time.”
The website, a collaboration including the mayor, CIO Samir Saini, Chief Resilience Officer Stephanie Stuckey, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Public Works Commissioner William Johnson, and GIS employees, began as something quite different. It first launched in early April as an internal-facing way for public works and joint operations center workers “to get an understanding of what was happening on the street,” Saini told Government Technology.
“But once we built that out for internal use we started looking at each other [saying], ‘Well this could be really valuable,’” he said. Conversations among members of the mayor’s task force, formed to deal with traffic congestion, helped identify the four main city data layers.
Stuckey contacted Esri’s Disaster Response Program, which offers cities consulting and technical support during disasters. The company's local government account manager, Rob Hathcock, said the process was streamlined by pre-existing contracts Atlanta had with Esri and Waze, which meant the city already had most of the tools it needed to create the platform. One exception, he noted, was amplifying its account with ArcGIS, the company's mapping and analytics platform, to host the services.
“When we first pulled in the disaster response team with the city of Atlanta, we kind of did a little bit of discovery, asking them what they wanted us to provide. They couldn’t mitigate the issue with the bridge. What they could do was show how the city responded to this, ‘What can we show our constituents after the bridge collapsed?’” Hathcock said.
In 2016, Atlanta was accepted into the 100 Resilient Cities network, a $100 million investment by the Rockefeller Foundation to help cities avoid being buffeted by physical, social and economic challenges. It also joined the Waze Connected Citizen Program, a free data-sharing partnership, last year.
Both partnerships helped fast-track the creation of CommuteATL, believed to be the first time a site has sent real-time information two ways: to Atlanta officials on one end and Waze users on the other, then letting City Hall communicate with Waze.
“If that’s true, that’s great,” Saini said. “You only really feel the value of these kinds of partnerships and this data-sharing in times of crisis, or at least it’s empathized a whole lot more. We’re proud of it.”
“What is coming to us is an official source of two buckets of information,” Adam Fried, global partnerships manager at Waze, said, describing the feed from City Hall of planned events like road closures and sporting events, as well as real-time events like weather, disasters and protests that affect transportation.
And there’s more to come from the website, which had start-up costs that were “virtually nil,” Saini said, consisting mainly of the extra staff time needed to stand it up.
He’d like to see CommuteATL become a real app in addition to an optimized website. And at least until I-85 is reopened, officials plan to continue adding data layers regularly while preserving an easy user experience. In the planning stages are ride-share and car-share information, MARTA bus schedules and more Relay Bike Share locations. Last week, the city announced the program’s expansion from 100 bikes at 22 locations to 500 bikes at 65 locations less than a year after its launch.
“We’re not going to pull the plug on it once the bridge is fixed,” Saini said. “We’re probably just going to ask citizens, ‘Where do you want us to take this thing?’”