Alex Goldmark is the senior producer of Note to Self, a storytelling show about how technology is changing society. Subscribe here to get Note to Self shows delivered right to your devices. Follow him on Twitter @alexgoldmark.
Snow Plow Tracking Site Too Popular for Its Own Good
Monday, February 11, 2013 - 05:20 PM
Snow was still dumping down on Boston Friday evening when the city had to pull down its public website for tracking snow plows. Within a couple of hours of snowfall the site had over a million requests from users. Boston's total population is 625,000.
"[The site] couldn't handle all the traffic," said John Gulfoil, spokesman for Mayor Thomas Menino. "It was hurting our efforts to actually track our own plows," he said.
The city had built the GPS-enabled tracking website so the public could watch along in real time as plows made their way around the city street by sodden street.
After the blizzard of 2010, New York City was trapped in piles of snow. Cars, buses, even ambulances were abandoned in streets that went unplowed for days. stranded on unplowed streets and citizens crying foul that they couldn't tell when and where the cleanup was coming. In the aftermath, NYC Mayor Mike Bloomberg said, "there was a discrepancy between information coming into and out of City Hall and what people were actually experiencing on the streets." He vowed to track each plow using GPS in the future. (More on that below.)
The blizzard this past weekend that hit Boston hardest, brought with nearly three feet of snow and the first real test (that we are aware of) of a GPS-managed snow plow fleet in a major snowstorm.
Boston has had a private GPS tracking system in place for smaller storms since. This was the first time the public was able to watch the plows move in real-time along with city officials.
The catch is that the same GPS system that populated the dots on the public website map also powered the Department of Public Works operational maps at its command center. The flood of interest from the public was clogging the servers and preventing plow fleet managers from doing their jobs.
The Department of Public Works mustered private contractors to join the city fleet in removing more than three feet of snow from city streets. The GPS tracking system has been in place for years and helps hold the drivers accountable because managers can see where they are. "They can't hide," as Gulfoil puts it. “Hopefully next time there’s a major storm we’ll have all the bugs worked out,” Gulfoil said.
New York City had a similar website in place, though with much less snow to contend with -- and citizens out sledding and such in higher numbers -- the PlowNYC website proved less popular and less problematic. Keith Mellis of the NYC Department of Sanitation didn't have traffic numbers immediately available. "We had no interruption," he said. "It works."
You can see where plows went in NYC hour by hour on this visualization of the PlowNYC data extrapolated by plow-watcher Derek Watkins.