Are you dreading the thought of traveling during a snowstorm this winter? If so and you’re in the Detroit area, a new online application from Wayne County, Mich., should make preparing for that trip a little easier.

The county has developed Compass, an interactive website that lets people see where the county’s salt trucks are located and the roads that have been plowed, allowing drivers to plot a safer course to their destinations.

Officially launched in early December, people can also view the road conditions online from the perspective of a driver, as 18 of the 149 vehicles hooked up to Compass feature onboard video cameras that transmit footage on a two-minute delay.

As trucks are deployed to clear the roadways, Compass pulls information every 10 seconds from the county’s fleet management system. That data — which includes location coordinates, salting status, plowing status, vehicle speed and other information — is automatically layered to Compass and displayed so residents can view the road conditions in various neighborhoods.

The system maintains the most recent GPS data for an eight-hour period, route histories of trucks, views from state cameras and radar from the National Weather Forecast Office. Other features include an event log so users can see upcoming activities within the county and the ability to toggle from events, traffic, radar and other functionalities on Compass’ map.

Zayd Allebban, director of enterprise applications for Wayne County, said Compass was the brainchild of county CIO Tahir Kazmi. Allebban explained that after looking at all the work the IT staff was doing to help the Department of Public Services manage its trucks better — including upgrading the county’s automatic vehicle locator (AVL) system — Kazmi posed the question of how to make the data available to residents.

The information presented on Compass is pulled from a variety of sources, including the Internet; weather data from the National Weather Service; Google traffic; traffic cameras from the state of Michigan; and data, fleet management statistics and AVL data from the trucks. Internally the county knows how fast a truck is going and whether a plow is up, down or salting.

Compass gives residents access to it all in one place as a mobility tool that people can use around the county.

“The bottom line is, in the end, a resident is not so interested in where a truck is; it’s not particularly pertinent to them,” Allebban said. “But they are interested in the services we render, which in this case [are] cleaning the roads and spreading salt or brine.”

Allebban said Compass also provides residents some assurances 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,” Allebban 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.”

Development History

From conception to a fully functioning application, Compass took four months to develop and was created in early 2011 by Wayne County IT staff. Since then, Allebban said the sheer volume of data the IT staff has been trying to incorporate into the program has been a daunting challenge. Compass’ code has been refined and tweaked since last snow season to get it running well.

The next upgrade of Compass will be to install video cameras on the remainder of the salt trucks in the county’s fleet. But the changes won’t end there. While Compass is only available currently as a website, the county is in the midst of developing a mobile app version of Compass that would be available for both Apple and Android devices.

In addition, Allebban hopes to roll out an even more interactive version of Compass in 2012, where the application becomes a two-way communications device, where citizens can report particularly bad roads that need plowing or salting.

“[We’re] making it a tool for residents to report in road problems and things like that,” Allebban said. “We’d like that to be available for the next snow season in 2012-2013.”

Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1998, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.