Updated ClearStreets, alternative to Plow Tracker, brings new features and mobile-friendly design


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.

3 thoughts on “Updated ClearStreets, alternative to Plow Tracker, brings new features and mobile-friendly design”

  1. The Plow Tracker app is the equivalent of doing a search for steak restaurants in Chicago and getting a listing of where to find cows. Nobody gives a crap where plows are at any given moment – people care where streets are cleared. The two things are very different. I view that app as a glorified press release for the Mayor. Let’s not mistake activity (look at the trucks!) with achievement (safe clear streets).

    Note: Also curious to see how the ‘State Law Stop for Pedestrians in Crosswalk’ signs held up to plowing in the first snow. I know plow operators tend to take the middle line to cut the number of passes they have to make to clear a street and that is impossible with the new signs.

    1. I am curious, too, about the “stop for pedestrians in crosswalk” signs. Today I was riding in the Illinois Medical District and saw one of these signs on the sidewalk. I remembered that these signs are manually added to the street and removed each day, to only be “active” when the greatest number of people are walking in the area (Paulina Avenue near Taylor Street).

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