The night before 2012’s Winter Storm Draco, Derek Eder sat wide awake, busily cranking out a script to track all of Chicago’s 300 snow plows the following morning. Just in time for the storm's release, Eder, along with three other programmers, released ClearStreets, a visualization that mapped the plows as they cleared several inches of fluff from the city grid.
The ClearStreets map was met with 3,000 clicks over the next 12 hours, and as a result, Eder maintains it to this day. Using open-source GPS data from the Chicago city government’s static Plow Tracker, he’s able to extrapolate the routes of the city-issued plows and their timing. Then, last week, programmer Andrew Hill decided to take Eder’s work and integrate it into a rapid, glittering animation on mapping platform CartoDB. (Watch it in full here.)
Hill and Eder’s work accomplishes several things. First, watching a city clear itself is pure aesthetic pleasure, with plows spiraling from main streets to smaller ones in twinkly bursts of activity and swirling forms. But more practically speaking, the maps also show tax dollars at work. Think government is all inefficient bureaucracy? Check again as an army of plows systematically tackles the wintry mix.
The map also put certain myths to rest. While some residents expect that snow plows might favor wealthier neighborhoods with more politically connected people, Eder’s map showed that Chicago’s snow plows took an egalitarian approach.
"There’s certainly a lot of stigma around the inequality of the distribution of plows," Eder explained. "But the one thing that ClearStreets definitively proved is that is not happening. It’s actually very equitably distributed across the city, and they have a very methodological way of plowing the streets in a certain pattern."
Since launching ClearStreets, Eder has also founded Open City, a larger project that makes government data more accessible and easier to digest. Open City now has 12 open government projects under its belt, with apps that track everything from zoning changes to students’ chances of getting into Chicago’s selective public schools.
"When [agencies] release this data, it allows leaders from the outside to look at it and try to make improvements, try to make cool apps, try to improve transparency and accountability of government," Eder said.
Hopefully, increasingly popular open data projects like these will be a boon for civic democracy. Open City’s next effort will look at local campaign financing, which can be endlessly fascinating, if not frustratingly complex.