Civic Tech Takes on Snow: Seattle Hackathon Addresses Winter Weather

City officials and residents brainstormed ideas like using drones and creating an informational app for coping with snow.

by / January 3, 2017

It's just frozen rain, but when combined with surprise and geography, snow can be a big, white, wet blanket on Seattle.

That’s why, to lighten their municipal load, officials hosted the Let It Snow Hackathon on Dec. 15 to brainstorm with Web designers, developers and residents on how to better use technology to communicate before, during and after winter weather events. The year’s first snow was expected the next day — but an ongoing problem for the hilly city is that major snowfall doesn’t happen often enough for residents to adapt.

Jim Loter, Seattle’s director of digital engagement, is from Michigan, where heavy snow is a regular occurrence and residents are accustomed to living and working in a winter wonderland. It’s a different story in Seattle, he said.

“If we get snowfall and it falls for the day and it warms up, everybody’s OK and people aren’t too mad. But every few years it is a matter of a heavier than usual snowfall for a few days — to use the cliché, the ‘perfect storm,’” Loter said. “I think the broader statement of the problem we’re trying to solve is, it’s a rare event but when it happens, it paralyzes the city.”

With winter on the way, Seattle Mayor Edward Murray suggested hosting the event and officials began planning shortly before Thanksgiving, according to Candace Faber, city civic technology advocate.

Seattle already tracks snowplows and de-icers, like its peers in Cincinnati and elsewhere. But before the event officials made 22 different data streams available to creative types at techtalk.seattle.gov/2016/12/15/let-it-snow-new-open-datasets/. These included the locations of traffic cameras and road temperature stations; a listing of streets that have been closed due to winter storm events; and links to listings of blocked streets, lanes, sidewalks and intersections that gets updated when snow sticks.

Presented in a three-way partnership with Open Seattle, which runs events focused on building the civic technology community and addressing civic issues, and product design company Substantial, the hackathon wound up being less 24-hour coding session and more of an evening workshop, Faber said.

Of the 46 people who RSVP'd, around 20 attended ,including the mayor and city department heads. They described their concerns with snowfall, created storyboards and shared an array of ideas.

“The result of having that all in the room, as well as people from the technology community and the community at large, was that we were able to get a more holistic picture of what people are concerned about in the event of an emergency,” said Faber, who joined one of several teams discussing ideas.

A report on the event is expected as soon as next week.

Arguably the most surprising proposal: using drones to deliver road salt and resources by crowdsourcing locally owned drones to cut infrastructure costs.

“I will say that that is one of the more creative ideas,” said Seattle Chief Technology Officer Michael Mattmiller.

Working in groups, attendees talked about how snow forces them to adjust responsibilities and transportation plans, and sometimes hurry to find resources to weather the storm. They may want to stop what they're doing to have fun in the snow, attendees said — but it also forces them to shift work hours; find ice- and snow-free routes; and use TVs, cellphones and computers to identify dangerous spots and learn whether it’s safe to go to the store.

Attendees' questions included how to find transportation information, learn whether routes had been plowed, and decide whether a trip could be made with reasonable delays.

Ideas for dealing with the snow included:

  • Offering a simple Web signal that could be customized to show individual transportation routes.
  • Personalized alerting based on self-declared priorities, via a Web space that would let residents manage their communications from the city.
  • An online "Find It, Fix It" area for snow removal, letting residents suggest on-the-fly snow clearing for areas that otherwise would not be plowed like residential streets. Attendees suggested this could be integrated into Nextdoor or other Internet groups.
  • "Snowattle," a variation on the city's name: a crowd-sourced resource and volunteer board for temporal events like a snowfall. It would offer people a way to give and receive help such as snow removal. "Say someone has a medical condition or is disabled and unable to shovel their drive but needs to get out; the idea is that you’d be able to connect them with volunteers,” Faber said.

Other suggestions included:

  • Offering a single city app where residents can find all snow-related information.
  • Working with local hardware stores or Amazon to create a wish list of items people might need during a snow emergency — from water and batteries to flashlights and candles.
  • Creating an online list of community centers, businesses and libraries that would double as weather help stations.
  • Creating an app for snow events that would provide connections to community resources — everything from open shelters to a listing of spontaneous snowball fights.

Loter said Seattle will review all ideas closely, then move forward.

"The city is committed to taking [on] the ones that sound the best, sound the most feasible," he said recently. "That could include issuing small contracts to informal groups of developers or small business people, small entrepreneurs."

Theo Douglas Staff Writer

Theo Douglas is a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.