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Awards season in Hollywood may be over but county governments can still look forward to the prestigious National Association of Counties (NACo) Achievement Awards, which have been recognizing innovative county government programs for the past 48 years. Maryland’s Montgomery County Department of Transportation (MCDOT) was a NACo honoree last year for collaborating with Microsoft CityNext partner EastBanc Technologies to launch SNOWiQ. This Microsoft Azure-powered solution provides real-time management and monitoring of snow removal efforts to keep residents informed when roads are cleared and safe for travel, while increasing operational efficiency and reducing costs.
January 2016: over 4 feet of snow
Reza Zarif, information technology specialist for Montgomery County, pointed to a significant January 2016 storm resulting in over 4 feet of snow as the catalyst for pursuing a more robust way of keeping the public informed during a snow event, and better managing operations. “The snow removal process, when you have that much snow, is going to be pretty slow,” he explained. “County residents are not able to get out of their homes, they (need) more data and information in terms of how soon their neighborhood streets are going to be cleared.” At the time, Montgomery County was using a mapping tool that was ill-equipped to provide up-to-date information. “There would be a lot of lag time between information flowing from our truck drivers to our depot staff to our storm-operations center … and then on to county residents,” he said. “That delay brought a lot of frustration.”
Another challenge was the inability to gain efficiencies and improve communication in what was primarily a paper- and radio-based operation. Zarif explained that Montgomery County employs about 220 plow-truck drivers, augmenting its staff by hundreds of contractors during severe storms. “That poses a whole set of challenges of its own” since contract drivers are not equipped with radios on the same frequency as county staff.
March 2016: developing a modern solution
In March 2016, Zarif’s Information Technology organization in the Department of Transportation in cooperation with Montgomery County’s Department of Technology Services, were tasked with developing a modern solution for snow removal. Having previously worked with Montgomery County to implement the TRANSITiQ public transportation tool, Peter Shashkin of EastBanc Technologies came onboard. According to Zarif, Montgomery County was clear on its preference for Google Maps and two other requirements:
- “A very scalable platform and (cloud) architecture that could handle large volumes of data and public inquiries during major events” and the increased data flowing between snowplow drivers in the field and operations staff.
- “We wanted the system to work using mobile devices—either tablets or phones” to avoid installing special equipment in snowplow trucks and enable direct communication with drivers about their locations and assignments.
An Azure cloud-based architecture offered many advantages for what would become SNOWiQ. “There were many facets of Azure that made it an attractive choice for us,” Zarif said. “We really wanted to have a system that was built on cloud services to be able to withstand the volume of data.”
For Shashkin and EastBanc Technologies, the trusted Azure cloud provided other benefits: “As a custom software development company, we needed a cloud solution that allows us to quickly react to requests from our customers without unnecessary overhead of datacenter and system administration. Azure, being a leader in platform-as-a-service (PaaS) technology, provides everything we need to accomplish this goal.”
After documenting customer requirements, EastBanc Tech began developing SNOWiQ in August 2016 and had an initial system deployed in one of Montgomery County’s five depots to assess performance and gain feedback from the field. “Overall, the product has been received extremely well by our drivers, by our supervisory staff and even by our contracted drivers,” Zarif said. “We’re able to provide the makeup of the route that they need to travel to treat the roadways using a mobile device and that’s been a huge benefit. Previous to that, they were using paper maps or just institutional knowledge.
“With SNOWiQ, it doesn’t matter whether (the drivers) have done it a hundred times or if this is their first time—they know exactly where they need to go and what to do,” Zarif continued. “It has evolved our snow-removal operations to the point that I don’t think (we) would … go back to the way it was before.”
From March to December 2017, Montgomery County worked with EastBanc Technologies to refine SNOWiQ into today’s mature, award-winning system that is implemented in all five county depots. While 2018 results are not yet compiled, Zarif reinforced that they are clearly experiencing more efficient use of drivers, reducing a reliance on contractors and saving taxpayer dollars. “Through SNOWiQ, we can not only assign (a driver’s) current route, we can queue up all subsequent routes—through the push of a button on a mobile device. There’s tremendous savings in terms of time from our field staff. Our drivers are just in love with the product because it makes their jobs so much easier,” especially for those whose primary language is not English.
Montgomery County has received interest in SNOWiQ from nearby jurisdictions and Zarif encourages other local governments to consider this new solution for comprehensive snow removal, using commercially available iOS and Android mobile devices to seamlessly and efficiently dispatch route assignments to treat roadways, and provide real-time information to citizens. Microsoft CityNext is pleased to join with EastBanc Tech to empower this digital transformation, and we look forward to helping other municipalities address their snow removal requirements and promptly deliver information to the public. To learn more, please visit: