In your mind’s eye, what does a partially covered road look like? Some may imagine blowing snow over the road, while others see ice-crusted wheel tracks. A tool being heavily used this winter allows you to actually see what the roads look like from the snowplow operator’s perspective without leaving the comfort of your home.
The Iowa Department of Transportation’s snowplow tracking website, trackaplow.iowadot.gov, provides a way for anyone with Internet access to see where Iowa DOT’s snowplows are operating, to find out what materials they are using, and to view images from cameras fixed to the windshields. The highest usage date so far was Jan. 7, when an estimated 60,000 users accessed data from the site 3.5 million times. That’s 875 times more requests than are received on a day when there is no significant winter weather.
The data and images coming from the snowplow trucks are part of a larger data collection process that includes global positioning satellite and advanced vehicle location technology to help the Iowa DOT make smarter decisions related to treating Iowa’s roadways. Eric Abrams, the Iowa DOT’s geographic information systems coordinator, developed the architecture behind the public website. “Our snowplow trucks are now equipped to collect a wealth of information. Some of it is more useful to managers and supervisors at the DOT and some of it helps everyone. We’ve made the data available in a variety of layers on the track a plow site so people can pick and choose what they want to see. So far, the camera layer has been the most popular with the public.”
“When we were first exploring the idea of putting cameras in snowplows a few years ago, we wanted to make sure that this would not add any distraction to our drivers that would jeopardize their safety,” said Craig Bargfrede, of the Office of Maintenance. “We explored several options and decided to use an iPhone 4 mounted to the windshield of the snowplow. Our own folks in the Information Technology Division were able to develop an app that allows the still camera function on the phone to operate automatically, so there is no extra work or distraction for our drivers.”
Bargfrede said the choice to use the iPhone was based on several factors. “We get the actual phones at no cost because they come with the purchase of a data plan,” he said.
This winter, there are 430 iPhones set to operate as cameras mounted to snowplow trucks and other Iowa DOT equipment. Each of the cameras takes a photo every 10 minutes. Abrams says data is read from our databases and pushed to the cloud, so there is no chance that high usage will impact other internal Iowa DOT functions. He said, “The metadata from the image, time, location, and that type of thing, are sent to a database. Every five minutes a process runs that clears out the data older than 30 minutes assuring that users are seeing the most up-to-date information.”
Abrams says the Iowa DOT is leveraging technologies from several applications to make the website function (see flowchart). “And for the people behind the scenes, the best part is that it’s all virtual. Our people can diagnose and fix issues from anywhere with just a smartphone,” he said.
As cool as the current information is, Abrams says there is more to come. “Next year we’re working on a system that will help you plan a safer drive. If it works like we think it will, you will be able to put your start and end point into the system and get a map of your best route based on data from weather and road conditions and traffic speed information. You’ll also be able to see all the photos from your route in the order you would see it as you travel. Another element we hope to have is a predictive tool that will let you know if going now or waiting would be a better option based on weather conditions.”