iShovel: Cities Use Technology to Navigate Cold & Snow

1.6.12 | No, your iPad can’t shovel your driveway, but turns out it may be able to get your neighbor to. I couldn’t resist this quick follow up to the post I wrote here last month about how technology is reshaping city services. In that post I focused on Boston, whose Office of New Urban Mechanics is managing more than 20 projects that use technology to improve public services, like new apps that mine data from residents’ mobile phones to address infrastructure projects. Boston’s new SnowCOP app helps city managers respond to requests for help during snow storms.

The city of Chicago got into the game this week with, reports The New York Times. The site is meant to be a “one stop shop” for snow-related information, according to John Tolva, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s chief technology officer. is part of the city’s response to the huge blizzard that dumped over 20 inches in Chicago last February, crippling some parts of the city. The site provides a “Plow Tracker” so residents can track the city’s 300 snow plows in real-time and uses online tools to help organize a  “Snow Corps,” essentially neighbors helping neighbors, like seniors or the disabled, shovel sidewalks and walkways.

In Chicago, where the myth is that snow plow routes are politically motivated, residents are not necessarily known for their generosity of spirit during snow events. In my experience, surviving the winter is usually every man, or woman for themselves. As the Times points out, residents are known to put their decrepit old dining chairs (or boxes or other junk) into their hard shoveled street parking spot to make sure it’s available when they come home from work in the evening. So I appreciate this effort to use technology to build community and help residents take care of each other.

“Winter preparedness is everyone’s responsibility, and when we come together, community by community, block by block, we can help reduce the dangers and health risks that winter weather can bring,” Mayor Emanuel said in a press release. “ is an important resource that not only informs Chicagoans about how they can help their neighbors, but allows them to see the city’s snow program in action during severe weather.”

Chicago is also highlighting apps built by local developers using the city’s publicly available data like, that allows residents to punch in their license plate number and locate their towed or relocated car.

The city is also working with Code for America on an Adopt-a-Sidewalk initiative that will soon allow residents to share shovels and snow blowers and claim shoveling responsibilities on a publicly available map. The service builds on what the city of Boston has done with Adopt-a-Hydrant and is being built on the same technology platform designed by a Code for America fellow. Code for America is a fellowship program that pairs software developers with local governments.  Chicago will be working with Code for America fellows in the coming year to enable residents to submit 311 service requests online and to make these services more responsive using web-based technology.

Code for America’s most recent project, Civic Commons Marketplace, is intended to encourage cities to share software for the public good. So hopefully cities across the snow belt can learn from how well these technologies help Chicagoans shovel out in the winter of 2012. Stay warm.

Photo by pauldavidy.

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