CMU developed website helps Pittsburghers get around in snow

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Reports on How’s My Street? show that East Enders are most active in reporting their street conditions (Photo courtesy howsmystreet.net).

Look out your window. If it’s still snowing, you’re probably thinking: “Here we go again, the roads are going to be awful and I’ll be stuck at home for another two months.”

Only Mother Nature can make the snow go away, but a recent Carnegie Mellon-developed website called How’s My Street? will give you up-to-date information on road conditions submitted by the public.

How’s My Street?, which can be found online at www.howsmystreet.net, allows users to access a Google Map for any location worldwide and mark roads as passable, impassable or clear.

The web-based program then puts a virtual pin in the map on that street. Clear roads have green pins, passable have yellow and impassible have red.

As of Feb. 15, about 85 reports had been filed on Northside roads, most of them in the Central Northside, Deutschtown and Brighton Heights. The majority of reports show “passable” roads, with 19 impassable roads and 13 clear roads. The impassable roads are concentrated in Spring Garden and Troy Hill.

Brightwood, Perry Hilltop, California-Kirkbride and Spring Garden had few to no reports.

Anyone can access the map and see what other users have marked, and plan their routes accordingly. Of course, since the information is coming from the public, How’s My Street? cannot guarantee its accuracy.

“It’s free, it’s simple,” said project head Priya Narasimhan, a professor at CMU. “People in Pittsburgh really like to help each other.”

The idea for How’s My Street? came about when Narasimhan, who worked on Pittsburgh’s iBurgh mobile 311 application for the iPhone, emailed District 8 Councilman Bill Peduto asking if she could do anything to help the city in the aftermath of the Feb. 5 and 6 snowstorm.

About an hour after she sent the email, Peduto returned from a harrowing journey home after taking groceries to his elderly mother in the suburbs, and had to rely on a neighbor’s directions to find clear roads.

Similarly, Narashimhan had seen people sharing road condition reports on Twitter. “I was seeing a need for it. It made perfect sense.”

He said after that experience, it became clear the city needed a citizen to citizen networking solution, and Narasimhan provided the tools to create that network.

She and her students Nathan Mickulicz, Shahriyar Amini, Max Salley and Rajeev Gandhi worked remotely — as many of them were snowed in — from Monday through Wednesday last week, and the service went live around 3 p.m. Feb. 10.

“It wasn’t going to take the snow off the street,” Peduto said, “but it could let people know how to get around.”

People from all over the Pittsburgh region have been reporting their street conditions (Photo courtesy howsmystreet.net).

Since then, over 1400 reports have been filed through the service or about 300 reports per day.

“It was a pure volunteer effort by me and my students to help our city,” Narasimhan said.

But now that the utility of How’s My Street? has become clear, both Narasimhan and Peduto believe the service will outlast the snow mountains piled on street corners around the city.

Narasimhan said that it might be possible to use the information in Google Maps when looking for directions. For example, when Google Maps brings up your directions, it would also bring up road conditions reported by the public, and if you so choose, you could ask Google to avoid bad roads.

Peduto sees How’s My Street? as a sort of 311 line for road conditions. “If you start getting complaints about garbage pick up, you take care of it, but with crowd-sourcing you could also look for patterns [for problem areas].”

If there was a neighborhood that was consistently not plowed, for example, the city could take that into consideration and evaluate its snow plow routing strategy.

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