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Internet of Things Helps Buffalo, Other Cities with Snow Removal

Boston, Minneapolis and Buffalo are some of the municipalities harnessing the power of GPS sensors and machine-to-machine communication to modernize snow removal practices.

As the U.S. begins to feel winter’s icy grasp, a number of cities are turning to GPS data and the Internet of Things to help keep the roads clear during snowstorms.

Boston, Minneapolis and Buffalo, N.Y. (parts of which received 60 inches of snow on Tuesday, according to AccuWeather), are among the many municipalities using machine-to-machine communication and engagement tools to modernize snow removal and other inclement weather requests from citizens. From sensors attached to snow plows and interactive mapping technology, residents remain more informed on travel conditions, while public works departments are seeing an increase in efficiency.

Buffalo’s Division of Citizen Services teamed up with the city’s public works department to speed the process of addressing service calls for salting and snow issues. The plowing and salting strategy hasn’t changed – plows still clear the main roads, followed by secondary and side streets. But with GPS sensors now attached to the city’s snowplow fleet, it has made the entire operation a lot more transparent.

For example, if a citizen calls to request his or her block be plowed, when the plow clears it, a signal from the GPS sensor will remotely communicate with the city’s computer system to “close the call” and alert the resident through email that the street is clear.

“It helps us because when we’re dealing with snow, it allows the call-taker to see what’s going on,” said Oswaldo Mestre Jr., director of Buffalo’s Division of Citizen Services. “The call-taker has a monitor where they can see where the plow trucks have been and it’s color-coded if the truck has already been [at a particular location].”

Minneapolis uses a mobile app that enables citizens to report snow and ice issues. The data is geo-coded so all the requests are mapped, according to Scott Wellan, interim 311 director for Minneapolis. In Boston, citizens can view real-time updates on snowplowing through an interactive Web map. In addition, the city has an “Adopt-a-Hydrant” program where residents can sign up to claim a hydrant in their neighborhood and volunteer to remove snow around it after a storm.

While efficiency and interactivity with citizens are some of the more obvious benefits derived from connected technology, Mestre felt the internal gains are just as impactful. He noted that the real-time data and automated communication gives city departments the ability to map their businesses processes a lot better.

Wellan agreed, pointing out that Minneapolis will launch a public data portal in the near future. He said the hope is that as the portal grows, it will make most government data elements – including snow- and weather-related items – become readily reportable.

As the Internet of Things expands, Mestre said that so will Buffalo’s use of it. He noted that the snow reporting request closures have been well received by city residents and as a result, the technology is being used in other areas.

Buffalo’s Division of Citizen Services is working with the city’s inspection department to upgrade its work order system. Mestre explained that city inspectors are being outfitted with a mobile device that will be able to connect back to the office to close out cases, similarly to how it’s used for snowplowing requests.

“I view the advent of technology in the public sector as an equalizer of sorts in a time where you have to make tough choices fiscally,” Mestre said. “It presents cities an opportunity to think creatively and innovatively. In the past we had to think like that, so currently we are seeing the seeds of that investment coming to bloom and complement the good economic activity that is occurring in Buffalo.”

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines from 2011 to mid-2015.