SnowApps contest: The solution to New York’s snow removal problems?

December 29, 2010, 11:39 PM UTC

New Yorkers love to hate — the second anything goes less than perfect in this incredibly complex metropolis, we look for someone to blame.

When your mayor is a billionaire who went out of his way to get an exception to the rule for a third term, he makes an easy target — and the media is all too happy to pile on.

As best as anyone can tell, the biggest issue in deploying resources efficiently is lack of information. There are a lot of complaints, but there’s currently no system in place to figure out how much snow is where and exactly how many streets are actually clear. Seems the only thing that is currently tracked is whether or not a plow made a pass at some point during the storm, not whether there’s a clear street. Having information about how much snow is actually on each street, in real time, would be a great idea not only for deploying trucks, but for plotting routes for emergency vehicles.

What I can’t stand is when people complain based on a lot of hearsay, completely underestimating the complexity of the problem, and without proposing a reasonable solution. Seems to me that if this is an informational problem, technology should be able to solve this. If we want a technology solution on a limited budget with a given constraint, why not engage the tech/startup community for solutions?

Here’s the idea. Let’s get the key people involved who understand the scope of the problem — like ops folks from the Department of Sanitation. We’ll sit them down and pick their brains about how snow removal works — in a public setting.

Then, we’ll give a bunch of teams two weeks to propose real solutions in a kind of pitch contest. Can we cheaply put mobile/gps devices in each truck to take pictures? How do you power them? Maintain them? Is it a community-based solution, where armies of local residents are told to go to a central website to submit street condition reports in a structured manner — while all the information is presented publicly in real time? Is it a mobile app? How can we ensure 100% street coverage for the data? (Remember wardriving? How about snowdriving?”)

The winner could get a grant from the city to actually work on the problem. This would be money well spent because a better information system and better resource deployment would save the city a lot of money over the long term.

What’s clear to me is that just sending a flood of unstructured data at 311 on random, disjointed reports of unplowed streets isn’t going to solve anything.

Whatever the solution, at least we’ll get the right information in the hands of the best innovators — and instead of having them just complain to each other over Twitter, we’ll work on creating realistic solutions in collaboration with the city.

Given the media coverage over the snow removal job, it certainly wouldn’t hurt for folks from the mayor’s office and the sanitation department to sit down with innovators in a public setting. At least they’d know that we’d be trying to work with them, not just complaining about them. I think that would be a lot more productive.

Charlie O’Donnell is a principal with First Round Capital, working on very early stage investments in the New York City area. He blogs regularly at This is going to be BIG!

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