Pittsburgh, as seen during a winter storm in January 2014. Shutterstock

The city is trying to be more transparent with its municipal operations.

Pittsburgh, with its big hills, valleys and other challenging urban geography, is not a fun place to navigate in the snow or during icy conditions. Thus far, this winter has been fairly mild, so the city has not had a good opportunity to demonstrate its new GPS-enabled snow plow tracking system.

At a press conference on Friday, city officials gathered to discuss the city’s new system, which allows anyone to remotely track the movements of public works plow trucks during a snow event.

"For the first time, people in Pittsburgh have the ability to see the operations of our city in real time," Mayor Bill Peduto said.

Residents will be able to hop online "while that snow is coming down and see if that plow truck has been on your street or where it has been and to be able to look at it over a times lapse to see what streets are being treated and which streets aren't, what neighborhoods have been treated and what neighborhoods aren't and be able to have the power of technology provide a more efficient, more effective and more equitable service to the people of Pittsburgh," the mayor said.

The city has launched an all-encompassing snow website that not only hosts the online snow plowing tracker—a screenshot of a pilot demonstration is below—but other snow-related resources, including the city’s snow-removal ordinance.

One-hundred seventy-five public works vehicles are equipped with GPS units. While it allows the public to track plow-truck movements, the system gives the city additional data about how the vehicles are being used, including idling time and drive time.

"Reducing idle time has some environmental benefits but it also reduces wear and tear on our vehicles" Lee Haller, deputy director of public works, said during the press conference. "So the GPS is used for multiple things and gives us information that we can use in multiple ways."

Officials noted that Pittsburgh’s snow tracker is only in its first release. While it tracks public works vehicle movements, it doesn't yet track whether a particular street—and there are 1,200 miles of roadways in Pittsburgh—has been treated.

Sensors will need to be added to pinpoint whether, for instance, a plow is physically up or down.

And that is a key vulnerability for municipal snow-plow tracking systems that simply track vehicle movements and not actual roadway treatment. That’s been an issue in other cities that have deployed similar tracking systems, including Chicago.

But it’s a step toward greater transparency in municipal operations.

According to the Associated Press:

Across the country, local leaders have made plow-tracking data public in free mobile apps, turning citizens into snow watchdogs and giving them a place to look for answers instead of clogging phone lines at city call centers to fume. Chicago and New York introduced apps in early 2012, and Seattle has gotten into the game, as have some places in Maryland and Virginia.

As for Pittsburgh, city officials are waiting for the first big snow to put the plow-truck tracker into action.

"It’s a rite of passage every winter in Pittsburgh you can hear the chants coming up from the valleys and on the hill tops: ‘Where’s my plow at?,’" Peduto said. "There was a time when we would have to assume and guess in good faith and say: ‘But the plow was on your street at 3 a.m.,’ but no real way to be able to know for sure."

Now there will be more real-time information to better understand how the city is doing to make Pittsburgh’s challenging streets passable during snow events.

Top image: Sean Patrick Doran / Shutterstock.com

This piece originally appeared on Government Executive, an Atlantic partner site.

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