Op-Ed: Can an App Help Fight the Scourge of Unshoveled Sidewalks?

Headd: We haven't figured out how tech can mitigate this winter problem. That must change.

Sidewalks around the city were blanketed in snow in the wake of Winter Storm Jonas. | Photos by @philabikes and Holly Otterbein

Some sidewalks in Philly were blanketed in snow in the wake of Winter Storm Jonas. | Photos by @philabikes and Holly Otterbein

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from guest writer Mark Headd. Headd was the Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia from 2012 to 2014.)

Unshoveled sidewalks during the winter months are a persistent problem for cities in the snow belt, including Philadelphia.

For places with significant snowfall, unshoveled sidewalks pose a challenge to public safety and mobility for those who rely on walking (or public transit), and present an especially acute problem for those who have physical impairments. Uncleared snowfall on other kinds of public infrastructure — like fire hydrants — also poses dangers for city residents and public safety workers.

This is a sometimes daunting issue for cities that government officials, community groups and civic technologists perennially struggle with. Over the past several years, a number of civic technology projects have been initiated with the goal of mitigating the problem of uncleared sidewalks and other public infrastructure in cities. Few have been widely adopted, and — if we’re being honest — the impact of these efforts on reducing the problems associated with uncleared snowfall has been minimal.

Certain aspects of the problem seems relatively straightforward, and would appear to be a pretty good fit for a properly designed civic app. But despite several different efforts, there is not yet a widely adopted civic tech solution that most people would agree has had a meaningful impact on the problem.

In many ways, unshoveled sidewalks help highlight both the potential and the limitations of civic technology. For those who care about civic tech, this issue is worth understanding more fully.

Civic Tech for Snow Removal

One of the first civic apps developed by Code for America was Adopt-a-Hydrant for the City of Boston. The app created an easy way to volunteer to clear the area around a fire hydrant after a significant snowfall.

This app has since been deployed for other cities, and converted to support volunteers who want to help take care of other kinds of civic infrastructure like tsunami sirens, water inlets and sidewalks. In Chicago, the base Adopta app was repurposed and set up to allow volunteers to clear sidewalks after snowstorms.

And though uncleared sidewalks are a persistent problem in the Windy City, the app saw little adoption and is now dormant.

While the group responsible for deploying Adopt-a-Sidewalk in Chicago offered some criticisms of the app itself to help explain its low adoption rate, it should be noted that when it was originally developed this app was pretty groundbreaking. And the basic idea of an app to allow citizens to volunteer to help maintain and clear civic infrastructure — which Adopta pioneered — is one of the more potent and durable ideas in the world of civic tech.

But an easy solution to help mitigate the perennial problem of blocked sidewalks and covered hydrants continues to elude those of us in the world of civic tech. And it’s not for a lack of trying. In addition to Chicago’s Adopt-a-Sidewalk, there are a number of other civic tech projects that have attempted to address this problem.

311 apps (like Philly’s) may let city dwellers report snow removal issues, and 211 services may let property owners in need of assistance find help if they need it. The civic tech company SeeClickFix operates a service called Snow Crew, and at least two recent civic hacking events (one of which — in full disclosure — I am a judge for) have seen sidewalk snow removal apps developed. There are even efforts to use traditional social media as a way to call attention to the problem of uncleared walkways.

As a community, those in civic tech appear to have acknowledged that this is an issue worth solving. And if nothing else, web and mobile technologies have been shown to be pretty damn good at connecting those in need with volunteers who have the time or resources to help. This should be a fixable problem, right?

And yet, every time the snow falls in non-trivial amounts in cities across the snow belt, the problems return.

The Curious Case of Snow Removal

In some ways, the problem of snow removal is unique in the context of allowing volunteers to help maintain civic infrastructure. As noted by the Smart Chicago Collaborative, which oversaw the deployment of Adopt-a-Sidewalk in Chicago, the seasonality of the problem can make adoption difficult:

… the application is useless when there is no snow on the ground. Adopt-a-Sidewalk is irrelevant in the summertime, and for most of the winter spent between snowstorms.

Further muddying the water for potential volunteers, and unlike other kinds of public infrastructure, many cities in the snow belt, including Philadelphia, require property owners to clear the sidewalks adjacent to their property or potentially incur fines. More than for other types of Adopta app uses, there is the potential for allowing people to volunteer to take care of infrastructure that they are already legally responsible for clearing.

Some cities in the snow belt — but not all — also provide sidewalk clearance services by assessing a special fee on property owners, by clearing problem sidewalks and billing those not in compliance with local ordinances, or by helping marshal volunteers to help those in need.

But even in places where government is proactive about snow removal, the problems still exist. For example, the City of Rochester, New York, has a service for clearing sidewalks of snow, but it doesn’t kick in until at least four inches have fallen. In addition, scheduling considerations can potentially delay sidewalk-clearing in different parts of the city depending on the nature of a particular storm.

Even a city like Rochester, which provides a service for clearing sidewalks and has decades of experience with contemporary snow removal practices, still regularly sees residents complain of being negatively impacted by uncleared walkways and other public infrastructure.

This is a problem that neither the civic tech community nor governments seem to be able to develop a comprehensive solution for on their own.

Toward Better Civic Cooperation

For some types of civic tech solutions, the absence of a strong government partner isn’t a major issue. In fact, there are a number for which the very existence of an app can be tied to governments not being involved in a specific activity, or shirking their responsibility.

The Detroit Water Project was started to assist residents who had their water service discontinued by the City of Detroit because of an inability to make payments. It was actions taken by the city itself that created the problem being addressed by this civic app.

Grounded in Philly was started to help promote alternate uses for vacant property in Philadelphia — a persistent problem for which the city has been long been slow to respond.

Both are examples of civic projects that address an acute need not currently being met by city government. In some ways, this approach has advantages — working with governments to get them to adopt, endorse or even to advertise civic apps can be a challenge.

I once worked on a project at a hackathon in Philadelphia to develop an app for locating farmers markets and other outlets where fresh food could be purchased with SNAP benefits. The official list of these locations is maintained by the City of Philadelphia, and the app was embraced by local non-profits working to make food available to SNAP recipients. But when asked if the city would help advertise the availability of the app, at no cost to the city itself, officials refused.

This kind of story is all too common in the world of civic tech.

To make a dent in the problem of unshoveled sidewalks and other public infrastructure, city officials and civic technologists are going to need to figure out ways to more effectively collaborate on solutions to the problem.

To be successful, civic apps will need to be accompanied by strong municipal policies (and enforcement of those policies) for unshoveled sidewalks and critical infrastructure. Civic apps can make up a part of the solution to this persistent problem, but probably not all of it. This may require working not only with executive branch agencies, but also with City Council members.

Civic apps should probably be targeted to compliment existing municipal efforts where they exist — for example, in places like PhiladelphiaRochester and Chicago, where some sidewalk snow removal assistance is already provided. Civic apps may also be valuable in helping raise awareness and ensure better compliance with existing municipal ordinances for clearing snow from sidewalks and fire hydrants.

Civic technologists can also help jurisdictions in the snow belt make better decisions on how to allocate limited snow removal resources. There is an abundance of data that can be used to better direct sidewalk snow-clearing efforts, such as 311 data, locational data for schools, nursing homes, day care centers and bus stops, and even data on vehicle registrations that can help identify elderly or handicapped individuals who may need more targeted assistance.

This is an opportunity to not only help address a problem that is common in many cities in this country (and that disproportionately falls on those with fewer resources, a dependency on public transit and who are elderly or disabled), but also to expand our knowledge on how civic tech projects can become more collaborative with government partners.

If we can identify an approach that works, there is the real potential to gain valuable knowledge that can assist all kinds of civic tech projects.

We haven’t figured out yet how civic tech can mitigate the problem of uncleared sidewalks. But when we do, the potential payoff could be bigger than a snow pile in February.

This article has been cross-posted from civic.io. Headd is currently a technical evangelist at the government software firm Accela.