Phil Jones, a snow inspector for the city of Springfield, drove a public works pickup down Laurel Street Thursday morning.
After a few blocks, he pulled over and grabbed the laptop off the mount on the dashboard. Jones clicked the stretch he’d just inspected on a map of city streets, showing blue for “uninvestigated,” and switched it to orange for “patches of ice and snow.”
“The main objective is clear curb to curb, but right now, I say patches of ice and snow because this whole lane here is snow,” he said, pointing to the outer lane of the street. “I put that in, and then once I save it, this turns orange.”
Jones is trying out a new software program that allows inspectors to track road conditions during winter storms in close-to-real time.
Engineers from the public works and information technology departments built the program that they hope will make the snow-removal process more efficient and provide better information to the public during snowstorms.
The program and accompanying map are in testing phases, according to Public Works Director Mark Mahoney, so the information is only available on the city’s internal system. But the goal is to put the map on the city’s website by next winter.
Mahoney discussed snow- and ice-removal operations, which involve 110 employees, with the Springfield City Council in December. Aldermen told him they had received dozens of phone calls the weekend before asking why residents’ ice-covered streets hadn’t been plowed.
Mahoney doesn’t think the new system will cut down on the number of calls, but it might provide better information.
“Ultimately it’s about providing more detailed information, more quickly, to the public,” Mahoney said.
The streets glowing blue, orange, yellow, red or green on the map help Jones decide where to send the four snowplow drivers in the district he covers, which stretches from Clear Lake Avenue to North Dirksen, and MacArthur Boulevard from South Grand to North Grand avenues.
Red means covered in ice or snow, while green is clear. Yellow shows roads that are tolerable or as good as they can get, and orange shows sections that need more work.
Once the other thoroughfares and worrisome sections of road are clear in his district, Jones said he’ll send a driver back to clear the orange sections on Laurel.
Next to the laptop in Jones’ truck is a thin blue binder, with photocopied sheets listing the routes in his district. When he hands off his district to the night snow boss around 7 p.m., Jones usually sits with his counterpart and goes through the binder page-by-page, giving updates on the day’s work.
Using the new program, the communication will be much different.
“It’s less paperwork,” he said. “If I had to leave early for whatever reason and was not able to communicate with my other snow boss for night shift, it’s right there on the computer for him.”
‘A better way’
The paper-based system is what Riley Potts, a former snow boss and sewer engineering technician for the city, hopes the program will move the city away from.
Potts began developing the program in 2013 after growing frustrated with the slow process.
“We just had that big binder, we had our areas and we knew our areas, but not really,” he said. “I have a little technical background, I know what a (geographic information system) is, and just thought there was a better way.”
He used a GIS, a system designed to build and manage maps, to navigate the district he was assigned.
Potts would put markers where the “trouble spots” were, hilly streets or dangerous intersections where crews plow and salt first to ensure they’re safe, so he could easily see where to drive. He continued working on the system in his free time.
When the sewer department began using a new software program, Cityworks, to track sewer line conditions and repairs in 2015, Potts saw an opportunity to build a more advanced tool and help the snow crews as well.
“I went through some classes that had to do with rating the sewer system, and went through a couple more classes that deal with asset management, and everything just came together,” Potts said. “It more or less developed into what we’re using now.”
The sewer department uses Cityworks for all of its operations, from taking work orders to repairing lines and tracking materials. Now, the sewer staff is leading the charge in implementing the program for snow removal.
Once Potts designed the Cityworks-based road-conditions program, he worked with the IT department to put it on the city’s internal website. The tech staff added data wheels to show the breakdown in conditions of primary and secondary roads and trouble spots.
John Higginbotham, a city sewer engineer, said the map and data wheels will be useful for not just inspectors, but also the operations coordinator who oversees snow removal citywide and dispatchers who receive calls from the public.
“Before, the operations coordinator, he’d be on the phone all day long, getting reports from snow bosses, then he’s gathering information from radio dispatch,” Higginbotham said. “This gives all that information in one place.”
Thursday was the first test-run during snowy weather, and the biggest challenge to implementing the system may not have been with the technology.
“The part we’re having a little problem with is getting everyone’s comfort level up and getting everyone on even playing in Cityworks,” Potts said. “A lot of guys haven’t used it yet.”
Jones said he likes having the computer in his truck and updating road conditions quickly. But he said some of his colleagues aren’t as excited.
“You got the older guys, who are like my father,” Jones said. “Anything with the computer, he’s like no, he’d rather stay with paper. But once they get it going, it’s like 10 times better.”
To John Mellor, a software specialist with the sewer department, incorporating technology into daily work processes represents a culture shift.
“We always talk about how it’s hard to embrace that change,” he said. “You have to do it the way you used to do it, and you have to do it the new way until your comfort level in the new way replaces the old way.”
— Contact Mary Hansen: 788-1528, firstname.lastname@example.org, twitter.com/maryfhansen.