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As Winter Starts, NYC Gives Snowplows a Digital Kick

Removal of snow is among the most important tasks of state and local governments. Newer mapping and other tools are helping officials better deploy plows even as public works departments face severe staffing shortages.

Snowy Road
The start of winter this year comes with the debut of new snowplowing technology in the country’s biggest city — a reminder of how software, satellites, GIS and other tools are helping to improve one of government’s most vital tasks.

New York City recently unveiled its BladeRunner 2.0 “state-of-the-art system” for snow cleanup.

It replaces technology deployed in 2015 and offers better ways to “track and support our fleet of approximately 5,000 vehicles across all five boroughs,” according to Mayor Eric Adams in a statement.

Specifically, the system provides what the statement described as “enhanced GPS tracking data” and Google map integration; real-time brine progress information; visual data layers focused on brine coverage locations, snow preposition points and protected bike lanes and cloud-based services allowing for more users at the same time plus faster response times.

The city is putting its trust in BladeRunner 2.0 amid a $500 million investment in new trucks and the highest head count in 20 years for the New York City Department of Sanitation.

That last part is especially notable.

That’s because there is an ongoing shortage in the U.S. of snowplow operators, a trend that in turn is also sparking more interest in cutting-edge snow removal technology among state and local governments. Those agencies annually spend more than $2.3 billion on snow removal operations, according to a federal estimate.

Newer tools available to those agencies include coverage maps with real-time street views, which helps track progress; better mapping communication techniques so that residents can see for themselves which streets have been cleared; and integrated data sets that help agencies better manage costs of materials used in snow removal operations.

Dashboards, too, are an increasing part of the snow removal tech operations, reflecting a larger government technology trend.

Mapping, as one can imagine, is among the prime jobs of snow removal technology, not only showing which routes are open, but also directing drivers to snow drop-off sites, among other features.

At the University of Minnesota, a new campuswide snow removal map required 65 hours of GIS work — geographic information systems continues to become a bigger part of mainstream gov tech — and nine months of collaborative work, according to a description of the project.

GPS data from a Verizon-backed snowplow deployment tool, meanwhile, keep tabs on drivers in rural Michigan even when cellphone service gives out on the back roads, allowing supervisors to track and manage the fleet, and avoid sending them down already-cleared roads, for instance.

The system also gives proof of snow clearing and removal when residents mistakenly complain that their neighborhoods have been ignored — complaints that can cause political problems down the road.

Not all snow removal operations are throwing out older ways of doing things, however.

A Washington Post report from earlier this year, for example, told the story of how public works departments use route algorithms to reduce snowplow driving time. Yet all the constraints involved in setting software parameters — for instance, which roads lead to hospitals, and where it's impossible for plows to make certain turns — has left some department veterans more confident in their own route-setting expertise.

In New York City, though, officials are expressing confidence that their new system will carry the metropolis through another snowy winter.

“The deployment of BladeRunner 2.0 is yet another example of this administration using real-time data to improve city government operations and benefit the lives of New Yorkers,” said city Chief Technology Officer Matthew Fraser in the statement.