In the chilly northeast no stranger to snow, Pittsburgh has added its name to a growing list of cities giving the public the ability to track snowplows after a storm.
"Like many cities in the northeast, we witness a lot of snow," said Debra Lam, chief of innovation and performance for the city. "At the end of the day, there is a strong need to know where the snowplow is."
Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto campaigned on the promise of giving residents more transparency and in mid-January, announced the Pittsburgh Snow Plow Tracker. During snowy conditions, the map application lets citizens search by address to find if a plow has come by and when. Other cities that also host snowplow-tracking apps include Chicago, New York, Maryland and Virginia.
"[The tracker is] a great tool internally, but it's also a great way for us to project out to the public," said Lee Haller, deputy director of public works. "Even if we haven't been on their street, they get to see all of the equipment we are bringing to bear against a particular storm event."
Pittsburgh is making use of GPS sensors already in place for tracking the health of its truck fleet to follow about 120 vehicles outfitted with plows and computerized salt spreaders, whose sensors feed into the map on the tracker. About 170 public works vehicles are outfitted with the sensors to track travel, engine and idle times. The city pays around $31,700 annually for the ability to monitor the public works vehicles for snow and ice, or $22 per device per month, according to Haller.
The Department of Innovation and Performance teamed with the Department of Public Works to make the spatial information public. The tracking informs commuters in planning their routes to work and city leaders in enhancing route logistics and ensuring no routes are missed, according to Lam.
"Before, we were basically waiting for somebody to call and complain, because there wasn't an easy way for us to identify that there were still streets that needed to be treated," said Haller.
The map also helps clarify route histories when residents call into the city frustrated, he added. TeMeDa, a Chicago-based asset-management company, is the provider of Pittsburgh's GPS sensors and began developing the snowplow tracker site last summer with the city, according to Haller. The company is helping the city to create the app to later use it as template with other municipalities.
The tracker is activated during any event with more than a half-inch of snow and stays online until the snow has cleared, which can be 48 hours. The app is embedded in a snow resource center site -- unveiled along with the tracker -- that houses the city's weather information like snow- and ice-clearing FAQs and winter storm levels.
The city is responsible for clearing more than 1,200 miles of streets, and prioritizes them based on storm levels and on route purposes. Primary routes -- those for schools, hospitals and emergency response -- are plowed first, followed by secondary routes, which are mainly residential, and then tertiary streets, consisting of side streets and alleyways. Route categories are posted on the resource site, but may also be included in the tracker as it is enhanced, Haller said.
The version of the app now available to the public is a pilot; the city will pursue future releases of the tracker that will bring enhanced functionality and changes from what the city has learned.
"The idea is we're getting a lot more feedback," Lam said. "We want to enhance the features and different ways to view it for the resident."
The city has received positive feedback from a handful of snowfall incidents since the app's unveiling, Haller said, adding that the response also has come with a general feeling that the public's ability to track the plows has resulted in improved snow treatments.
Already, though, the city is compiling future changes to the tracker, including addressing the app's default view -- the tracker shows current truck locations via icons, and users can see plow movement history by expanding a scroll bar up to 24 hours and looking for green-highlighted roads.
Haller said a way to improve the app to make it more intuitive would be to give users the whole picture -- current vehicle movement and past history -- as the default. Additional search features could also be added in an advanced tab to give more power to public works employees who want to revisit plowing history, he said.
Another caveat -- the trucks' GPS sensors follow their movements, but cannot sense whether they are actively plowing or salting roads. "In most cases, [a road shown in green] would mean that they'd been on the street because they are treating the street," Haller said, "but that is a current limitation given the GPS sensors that we have."
The city, he added, is looking to pilot more advanced sensors that will show where active treatments are taking place.
A partnership with Carnegie Melon University is also in the works, aimed at giving residents waiting for a plow an estimate of when one will arrive by integrating some predictive analysis into the app.
While these improvements are still in the planning stages, Pittsburgh's residents can enjoy the ability to plan and the added transparency that the snowplow tracker brings.