Iowa fights snow with data

Patrick Marshall at GCN: “Most residents of the Mid-Atlantic states, now digging out from the recent record-setting snowstorm, probably don’t know how soon their streets will be clear.  If they lived in Iowa, however, they could simply go to the state’s Track a Plow website to see in near real time where snow plows are and in what direction they’re heading.

In fact, the Track a Plow site — the first iteration of which launched three years ago — shows much more than just the location and direction of the state’s more than 900 plows. Because they are equipped with geolocation equipment and a variety of sensors,  the plows also provide information on road conditions, road closures and whether trucks are applying liquid or solid materials to counter snow and ice.  That data is regularly uploaded to Track a Plow, which also offers near-real-time video and photos of conditions.

Track a Plow screenshot

According to Eric Abrams, geospatial manager at the Iowa Department of Transportation, the service is very popular and is being used for a variety of purposes.  “It’s been one of the greatest public interface things that DOT has ever done,” he said.  In addition to citizens considering travel, Abrams said the, site’s heavy users include news stations, freight companies routing vehicles and school districts determining whether to delay opening or cancel classes.

How it works

While Track a Plow launched with just location information, it has been frequently enhanced over the past two years, beginning with the installation of video cameras.  “The challenge was to find a cost-effective way to put cams in the plows and then get those images not just to supervisors but to the public,” Abrams said.  The solution he arrived at was dashboard-mounted iPhones that transmit time and location data in addition to images.  These were especially cost-effective because they were free with the department’s Verizon data plan. “Our IT division built a custom iPhone app that is configurable for how often it sends pictures back to headquarters here, where we process them and get them out to the feed,” he explained….(More)”