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'Hackathon' to open up data about Syracuse plows to help improve snow removal

Ellen Abbott
Syracuse's chief data officer, Sam Edelstein, left, and city operations director Corey Driscoll Dunham at a hackathon in Syracuse Thursday

The city of Syracuse is opening up data it collects about snow removal to the public and is hoping it can lead to smarter ways to clear city streets after a snowstorm. 

The city is partnering with AT&T and Syracuse University’s iSchool for a hackathon called Plowing Through the Data.

The city’s fleet of 37 snowplows has been outfitted with GPS tracking devices for three years now. Whenever a plow is dispatched, it generates reams of data about where it goes, when the plow hits the road, when salt is spread. The local tech community will plow through those numbers during the three-week competition, looking for ways to make snow removal more efficient. 

City operations director Corey Driscoll Dunham expects plow routes to get some attention. Currently plows have to hit certain places first during a storm, like hospitals, hills, and main roads.

“But a lot of the concerns we get from the community relate to residential streets. And for me personally, and I think for the administration, because that’s where a lot of  the concerns come from, I’m curious as to what the community comes back with on residential streets in particular,” said Dunham.

Sam Edelstein, the city’s chief data officer, said the information from the plows could yield any number of ways to improve snow removal.

“Some of that might be telling us easier ways to figure out if a snow plow has been down a street or not,” said Edelstein. “Maybe you can help us figure out better routes to attack the city when it snows. Or maybe something creative that we haven’t even thought about.”

The competition could lead to anything from an app to a map to help a city that is generally among the snowiest in the nation. This is the second time a hackathon opened up data to the public for a specific purpose.

Two years ago, the city got some good ideas about dealing with roads and potholes.

“At the highest level I think the benefit is that it engages the community in a way that I think we just hadn’t done before,” said Edelstein.

Ellen produces news reports and features related to events that occur in the greater Syracuse area and throughout Onondaga County. Her reports are heard regularly in regional updates in Morning Edition and All Things Considered.