ClearStreets’s new look.
Last January I told you about ClearStreets, an alternative to the City of Chicago’s Plow Tracker website. The main difference is that Plow Tracker shows the current location of snow plows while ClearStreets tracks where they’ve been. Both sites have been updated today in time for our first winter storm, but since the world is ending tonight, you better look at them quickly.
Photo of mobile-friendly Plow Tracker by Dan O’Neil.
Plow Tracker has been updated to better display on mobile devices, at a different URL: http://m.cityofchicago.org/plowtracker. If you load it on a desktop browser, it doesn’t appear correctly.
During my conversation with lead creator of ClearStreets, Derek Eder, I told him that I believe there’s a weak relationship with the focus of Grid Chicago – sustainable transportation. The updates don’t change that, but we had a good discussion about the future of ClearStreets, and the implications and potential it has, as a platform, for other ideas and apps where that relationship could improve. Also, I’ve been exploring technology and transportation with this blog for some time as I’m a programmer myself.
A lot of the ClearStreets updates are visual:
- “There’s been a facelift!” The site is using the latest version of Twitter Bootstrap which makes it more “responsive”. What does that mean? When you change from the desktop to a tablet, or a tablet to a smartphone, the design of the webpage changes to match the new screen characteristics, without making any modifications to the code.
- The webpage tells how many plows are active. This will be updated soon, Eder said, to have a time limit. For example, it might say, “39 plows active in the last hour”.
- When you type an address or place, the form suggests some locations that you can accept (so you can type less).
- Permalinks: You can link someone to a specific place. Here’s Chicago City Hall.
One new feature that excites Eder, mainly for the unforeseen potential it offers, is the snow plow leaderboard. It ranks snow plows by the number of traces that have been recorded, which implies the distance they’ve plowed. “I’m all about people rooting for certain plows. We might offer to let people ‘claim’ a plow, name a plow, get updates from that plow. Maybe there could be bets on which will plow the most.”
The project has two new contributors, Ben Smithgall, and Samarth Bhaskar. Smithgall is looking into automating the weather widget. Right now it’s manually added, but in the future, using a “weather API” (application programming interface), alerts and information about an upcoming storm would be displayed in the webpage in real time without any user intervention. Bhaskar is developing a new “backend” (the programming that retrieves the snow plows’ GPS logs and draws it on the map) to make it faster and look better at different zoom levels (plow traces disappear at some zoom levels because of current server limitations).
So what of the potential for the “ClearStreets platform”? The next question becomes, “What else can be tracked?”
Eder said that “this codebase can be used for anything that has a GPS trace”.
There’re other vehicles that the city has. It’s hard to imagine a narrative, like the one you can get from the Plow Tracker. It’s associated with an event, we know what plows do, and why we need them. Is it worth knowing where other city workers/vehicles go? Street sweeping is important and SweepAround.us kind of does this, but doesn’t show live tracking. It tells you when to move your car.
I suggested some other opportunities, that go beyond city fleets. If you wanted to record the Chicago Transit Authority’s buses for a day or week to see where bus bunching occurs, you could query the Bus Tracker API and store the answers in a variation of the ClearStreets app. A taxi company could record the locations of its member taxis’ GPS logs.
A bicycle transportation planner could use GPS signals from participants’ smartphones to track where people prefer to bike, as a way to identify popular routes, and where new bikeway infrastructure should go. This was actually done, but more manually, in Portland, Oregon, by Portland State University professor Jennifer Dill; it’s called BikeGPS (.pdf). The ClearStreets platform provides a highly-automated retrieval and storage method for that kind of data collection.