The web application could use some improvement. When I loaded the website at 11:50 AM, the map never loaded – searching for “plow tracker” on Twitter brought up a flurry of messages about the website, leading me to presume that the server was overloaded. The remaining page elements took over 60 seconds to load. On a second load I saw the map appeared as did 183 iterations of the funky snow plow icon.
First I zoomed in to a random spot and watched the plows move a pixel or two and then disappear. I reloaded the map a few more times over the next 10 minutes, but I didn’t see the plows again until 12:18 PM. I zoomed in to my block to watch the plows move (they were still doing the major streets first so I wouldn’t have been able to verify the plow’s location by staring out the window).
It’s a hard map to pay attention to: the plow icons move imperceptibly, or not at all. There was a plow sitting in Rockwell Park that hadn’t moved in over 10 minutes. Maybe the driver was on their lunch break. I think there are many opportunities to share more information with Plow Tracker than just the current location. Knowing which streets are plowed could help the Chicago Transit Authority redirect buses if there’s an impasse along a route, and people who are going to cycle home from work can create a route that maximizes the time spent on plowed roads. Here are my suggestions:
- The server resources should be upgraded to meet the demand. It’s very frustrating to see a blank square where the map should go.
- After I type in an address, I should be able to press ENTER instead of clicking “GO”. And upon marking that address on the map, it should zoom to that location. This is the functionality that people have come to expect, after Google Maps transitioned the web to smooth maps from the MapQuest “pan and zoom” method.
- When the map loads for the first time, hundreds of snow plow icons are seen. They cover the entire city area. It could be more useful to show these as small dots that turn into icons when I zoom in.
- There should be feedback on the page that indicates the next time the map will update, or if it will update (the tracking function could be temporarily unavailable). This is akin to the button you push to activate a crosswalk signal. There’s no indication that the signal “accepted” you pushing the button.
- Tracking the movement of over 100 snow plows and displaying this to the website visitor hogs server resources as well as the visitor’s computer resources. Plow Tracker could follow the example of CTA Bus Tracker: it lets you select only 5 routes at a time. While this is likely for performance reasons, showing the buses for 140 routes would be useless data.
- Plow Tracker should show the direction of the snow plow, like the CTA Bus Tracker does.
- The “info window” that appears when you roll over the snow plow tells you its approximate street address as well as “asset type”, which is “snow plow”. Are there other options that might be displayed under different conditions?
- The webpage should offer information on why a plow may appear to not be moving. It could be that the technology has a hiccup, or that the driver is on a break, or had a vehicle malfunction.
In Plow Tracker 2.0, the city should ask residents what questions they have about snow removal and build the application to cater to that. Questions like:
- When will my street get plowed?
- When was the last time a plow came?
- Can I drive today, or should I take the train?
- How can I notify the city that my street needs plowing?
One idea that could be simple for the city to implement would be to take recent location data for each plow and color the route where they’ve been. If a section of street has just been plowed, it could be colored green. If it is red, no plows have been there in a long time. This would at least give citizens the ability to see something useful: the status of the streets instead of the status of the plows.
Photo of a snowed-in bicycle by Drew Baker.
Note: I noticed at 12:46 AM on Friday that the website loaded almost immediately and that a new message was displayed. It said that a shift change will occur at 11 PM so the drivers will be returning to their bases, going home, and the plows would get new drivers. It also said that the “Snow Command” can be supplemented with drivers from the Departments of Transportation and Water Management.
Derek Eder contributed to this article with some good ideas on what to add to Plow Tracker and what they may look like.