To Fight Snow Storms, Bring Out the Big Data

When a blizzard rolls into town, cities usually bring out the big boys. By Monday night, facing a winter storm that dropped more than 2 feet of snow in some parts of the Northeast U.S., thousands of snow plows were lined up across the region. The next morning, long before the sun rose, many were already out on highways and on residential streets, shoving the glistening white powder out of the way.

But where they’re deployed can sometimes be a haphazard process, and depending on the city (say, Washington, D.C.), it’s not uncommon for the army of some hundred trucks to miss a spot—or, you know, an entire neighbourhood. So, to ensure that the snow plows are reaching every corner of the city, some offices are relying on the power of big data.

In the northeastern region, it’s perhaps no surprise that Boston, which averages 45 inches of snow each year, is leading the effort. Since 2014, the city has monitored up to 700 trucks using an analytic tool called SnowCOP (for Snow Common Operating Picture). Developed by the city and the Virginia-based consulting company Qlarion, and with the help of GIS technology from Esri, SnowCOP tracks where each truck is in real time.

Every minute, GPS trackers on each truck ping its location to the central command center—the public works office—and that information gets recorded and visualised on a map of the city’s 30,000 streets. Streets that have been visited by a snow plow appear green, while those that the trucks may have missed appear red. Meanwhile, 311 calls to the mayor’s offices also get fed into the dashboard so that, over the course of the day, the city can keep track of the city to determine which streets or neighbourhoods need another round of plowing or other services. “The goal is really to [help Boston]make decisions based on real-time data, and not necessarily on history,” says Jake Bittner, CEO of Qlarion.

In 2015, as an effort to increase public engagement, Mayor Marty Walsh launched Snow Stats, an online tool that lets residents monitor snow removal activity in their own neighbourhoods. By entering an address, the map will pull up information about the percentage of streets and number of miles plowed in that neighbourhood, with extra information about how much time a truck has been on duty there. (The platform doesn’t appear to be active at the time of writing, though.)

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