The logistics of 'letting it snow'

City crowdsources ideas for improving winter weather communications

Snow is a rarity in Seattle. When it hits, many people would rather cancel their plans than deal with the roads, uncertain transit schedules, uninitiated motorists and general mess that comes from the cold white stuff.

“For those of us who grew up in Seattle, we kind of know it snows and we kind of know that it’s going to be a bit of a mess,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, “and it’s usually a reason to cancel meetings and stay home and cross-country ski in Volunteer Park, and everyone understands why you’re not going to work.”

But there are many people that moved to Seattle from other parts of the country that are confused by the city’s response to snow and limited resources, Murray said.

“One of the challenges is for us to get information out, as well as get information in,” the mayor said, “and it’s my hope that technology is going to be one of the ways that we both explain to people what we’re doing and learn from people what we need to do better.”

Murray has tasked the city’s information technology department with developing new communication tools for winter emergencies.

For something as infrequent as heavy snowfall, the city decided to crowdsource ideas from Seattle residents with tech experience and without, in order to design something that addresses a variety of service needs.

The city put a call out for the Let It Snow community design workshop hours before Seattle’s first snowfall of 2016 on Dec. 8, and gathered its open-source participants a week later in Capitol Hill.

“When we can’t function, especially this time of year, it’s a huge hit on our economy, it is a huge hit on people who are in need of our services, if people can’t get to them,” Murray told Let It Snow attendees Thursday, “so your ability to help us will help us figure out how to manage the situation for both our economy and for people who depend a lot on our services.”

The design workshop was hosted by Capitol Hill tech company Substantial, with exercises led by Mathias Burton with Open Seattle, which focuses on building the civic technology community in the city and prototype solutions for local issues.

Participants were first asked to think about the latest snowfall and how it affected them, and then to go further back to experiences during more severe snowstorms back in 2008 and 2012.

Program developer Evan Adkins said the snow that fell on Thursday, Dec. 8, didn’t put a stop to work on Friday.

“Thinking back to the snow storm before that, the big blizzard, I was thinking we were living outside of Redmond and the power went out for a very long time,” he said.

Adkins said his needs had revolved around staying warm, getting food and caring for his pets.

Suzy Brunzell, a senior geographic information system analyst for the Seattle Department of Transportation, told her work group it’s her responsibility during a snow event to check the city’s Winter Storm Response Map, making sure it’s online and working correctly.

“So, as soon as I wake up, I look to see if the response map is up,” she said. “Friday was sort of a nonevent.”

The application was created in response to storm weather in 2008, Brunzell said, and is due for an upgrade. It provides information regarding snow and ice routes, road temperatures and also where snow plows, salt spreaders and de-icer trucks are, but not the direction they’re heading.

Resident Katherine Boyd speculated more people use public transportation during snow and other winter weather events, saying real-time transit information app One Bus Away could be better.

“That system really got gummed up, but it’s probably not designed to handle an event like that,” Boyd said.

On top of better real-time information on weather, road and transit conditions, design workshop participants also said they wanted communication tools that provide information about available resources for the city’s homeless population.

At the center of every idea was a critical need for data.

Seattle Department of Transportation director Scott Kubly provided participants with an overview of when and how SDOT responds to winter weather, the city also making all storm response data from the department available at under the search “storm response.”

SDOT looks weeks out at weather forecasts, Kubly said, with accuracy improving the closer a storm becomes. He said the problem with the Dec. 8 snow event was the frequency in which the forecasted precipitation changed, with predictions ranging from a half to 5 inches.

The transportation department uses de-icer when conditions are dry and temperatures low. Using de-icer during wet conditions actually makes roads slicker, Kubly said.

Snow and ice routes come in two colors. Roads on gold routes are plowed curb to curb, Kubly said, and one lane in each direction is plowed on emerald routes. Plowing begins after snow accumulation reaches an inch.

SDOT provided lists of available data sets to participants, which include live traffic cameras and road temperature stations. Kubly said sensor around the city take the temperature of the pavement, which is helpful where moisture might accumulate and freeze over. This occurs in spots on the West Seattle Bridge during freezing temperatures, Kubly said, the moisture across the road coming from steam from the factories below.

“We try to treat those even when we’re not expecting snow,” Kubly said.

When it comes to keeping sidewalks clear, Kubly said private property owners tend to be a challenge, as it is required by the city that they perform the work.

With this additional information, participants were tasked with writing down as many ideas for “snow-storming solutions” as they could think of for several minutes, then fleshing those ideas out within their work groups. Similar ideas were combined and expanded upon.

Boyd said she would like a good Samaritan app, where less affected residents can volunteer to help those in harder situations, which Kubly had also expressed an interest in seeing developed.

One group proposed using drones for providing a number of services, such as delivering items to otherwise inaccessible areas or capturing data. Burton said other municipalities  are already using drones to collect topographical data during storm events, so it would be a concept worth consideration. He said he will take all of the ideas, written on post-it notes and organized in a variety of creative ways by the work groups, and compile a report for future use as the city explores improvements to winter weather response tools.