How Open Government Could Help in a Blizzard

View up the hill from the author's house, two days after the blizzard.

My family and I live at the bottom of a very steep, curvy street that dead-ends in front of our house. For over three days our street, home to 40 houses, went untouched by the City of Pittsburgh’s snow plows. With over 24 inches of snow on the ground, there was no way to get out. The City of Pittsburgh was almost totally silent on the progress of snow removal during the first 48 hours after the storm. Even after that, local officials provided almost no actionable information. After I spoke with some of them, I learned that nobody had given them any actionable information to provide. There was a complete information blackout throughout all levels of government.

While waiting for city snowplows to dig out our street and with no information about when they might arrive, I began to think about how a more open and transparent government might respond in this situation.

The test of a truly open and transparent government is how it responds to a crisis. For all its efforts to become more transparent, the City of Pittsburgh did not fare well on this test for a number of reasons:

  1. No one in government had any idea which streets had been cleared and which ones were still waiting to be plowed. The Pittsburgh Department of Public Works had paper maps for its drivers to follow, but did not track their drivers’ progress and could provide no estimation of when drivers might arrive on a particular street. No other agencies — the Mayor’s Office, City Council, the police, fire department, et al. — had any idea what the situation on the ground actually was, and thus could not communicate any accurate information to the public..
  2. No public employee or government agency was responsible for acting as a point of information to other agencies or the public. The Mayor’s choice to leave the city the day of the blizzard to celebrate his 30th birthday over two hours away exacerbated this leadership vacuum — snowbound in the mountains, he was unable to return for 48 hours. Things happen, but government still needs to function even if the Mayor is out of town.
  3. No public information system kept citizens informed. The Mayor’s 311 Call Center was unavailable, and no other way for people to share information with the city exists. On Monday, when the 311 Call Center opened, most callers were greeted with a busy tone throughout the day. When I finally got through, I was told there was no information available and no point in even leaving my street name. Even though citizens had no way to communicate with government or more broadly with each other, the Crowd that is our citizenry collectively knew where every unplowed or plowed road was. They turned to ad hoc Google groups, Facebook and Twitter to keep us abreast of the latest conditions. Why doesn’t the City have any way to harness this communal knowledge„

These problems serve as a call for change in city government. I propose the following actions to help the City avoid bungling the next crisis it faces:

  1. Install GPS transponders on every snowplow. This will allow the Department of Public Works to track the progress of every snow plow in real time. The Department would be able to track what streets have been plowed and have an idea of what will be plowed next, and when. These transponders are now inexpensive enough for even or cash-strapped city to purchase and install, and could be used in other DPW vehicles in other seasons.
  2. Design and deploy a web-based mapping system that communicates real-time information to the public. This tool has to be simple and easy to use. It should provide users with the ability to interactively browse and click on specific items for more information. It should also allow more advanced users to download any of the data layers displayed on the map for use in their own tools. The non-profit foundation community in Pittsburgh has developed a tool with these features in cooperation with local technology companies (yes, including Rhiza Labs). Hundreds of non-profits around the world use it — even Allegheny County (where Pittsburgh sits) uses it. Pittsburgh’s foundations have offered this tool to the City several times at no cost. It already exists and could be customized to the City’s needs within a week.
  3. Publish snow plow routes and GPS progress reports on this new mapping tool. This would reduce the burden on City employees to provide this information, since citizens and other agencies would be able to view it in real time. The media could rebroadcast this information via radio and television to citizens without Internet access. This will have the side effect of increasing citizen satisfaction with their government (and their elected officials) since they’ll know progress is being made.
  4. Engage citizens in collecting data for this new mapping tool. The City should control access to certain datasets in the map to maintain official, verified information. But why not allow users to add and share photos and reports of what they see in their own communities„ Think of it as a public channel for citizens to report in where road conditions are hazardous, where people are in need of services, and more. Citizens would be able to actually help local government response efforts by providing information that helps to target action. Right now, the City only has a mechanism for soliciting complaints. Yet as efforts around the country prove (from our own to commercial systems like SeeClickFix and more), public participation can help to drive intelligent government action if channeled correctly.

If the City were to take these actions, it would improve the collection and dissemination of information in a crisis. The demand on services like 311 and 911 to answer basic questions are likely to go down. This would reduce the overall burden on the City and allow workers to focus on fixing the problem, not spending their time explaining how powerless they are to citizens.

All of these actions are going to require the will to change the way things are done. From the responses that I’ve seen in the media and online, citizens (read: voters) are strongly in favor of not repeating the same mistakes twice. The Mayor may not be able to help being out of town during a crisis, but he can provide the leadership needed to implement solutions that help make his (or in the future, perhaps her) physical presence unnecessary.

The tools exist to do this. They are relatively inexpensive and in some cases free. I would like to offer to stand first in line to help implement these suggestions. As a City resident, I want to improve our ability to respond to crises like these. Please feel free to email me or give me a call (412-488-0600) if you are interested in taking me up on this offer.