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Track your snowplows live? Cities innovate

Two years ago, the City of Chicago decided to create a website, tracking the live locations of its snowplows as they moved through the city after storms.

Two years ago, the City of Chicago decided to create a website, tracking the live locations of its snowplows as they moved through the city after storms.

"We just wanted to counter this idea that snowplows go to the aldermen's streets first, or they're just hanging out at McDonald's," said Chicago's chief technology officer, John Tolva.

The website broke all of their tracking records "instantly," Tolva recalled Thursday at the Mayors' Innovation Summit at the Westin Hotel on South 17th Street. "It was actually a way of letting the public peer in and see how the city works - still an unquenched thirst," he said.

In Boston, city-owned vehicles are equipped with devices that detect significant jolts in the roadway. As they travel through the city, a mobile phone application known as "Street Bump" records the location of potholes, sunken manhole covers, or anything else that jars the vehicle. It transmits the information to city street department offices to help prioritize the city's road repairs.

Louisville, Ky., developed a partnership with the Walgreen Co. to supply 500 asthma patients with inhalers equipped with wireless sensors that transmit the time and location every time the inhaler is used. The city is mapping that information and comparing it to the locations of power plants and other pollution sources, land-use categories, traffic density, and other data sources, looking "to inform public policy as it relates to breathing problems," according to Mayor Greg Fischer.

These were among the stories shared Thursday as the City of Philadelphia, Temple University's Fox School of Business, and the U.S. Conference of Mayors cosponsored the summit, a three-day conference at the Westin, designed to let cities share ideas and accomplishments in using technology to improve city services.

The event drew more than 30 mayors and 200 other municipal officials from all corners of the country. They were joined by several hundred union members from the city and suburbs who lined 17th Street across from the hotel Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, seeking to embarrass Mayor Nutter for his handling of contract negotiations with Philadelphia's municipal workers.

Nutter, who will complete his one-year presidency of the Conference of Mayors next month, made no reference to the protesters in his welcoming remarks.

He touted some of his administration's accomplishments, including an open-data initiative to share more government data with the public, a 311 smartphone application for citizens to report problems and ask questions of city government, and creation of an Office of New Urban Mechanics to try to spur innovation throughout the government.

The mayor said the city was "slowly dragging ourselves into the latter part of the 20th century."

"We need to get away from the incremental change that used to be all people expected from government," said William Oates, Boston's chief information officer, a member of the opening panel. "With the financial constraints that we all face, we really need to innovate. We need to do this to be able to deliver the quantity and quality of services that we're asked for every day."

Some new computer applications are taking advantage of social media to anticipate problems before they're reported to authorities.

Tolva described "Foodborne Chicago," a site that downloads Twitter feeds originating in that city, looking for any tweets that mention people getting ill after eating in restaurants.

"They're looking for every synonym you can pick up for the word vomit," Tolva said. "It turns out, people like to tweet about that. . . . At a certain density of tweets, we can pick up, passively but proactively, a service request, and schedule an inspection without anyone ever calling 311."

Like Philadelphia, where private developers have created applications based on SEPTA schedules and city crime data, third-party developers in Chicago have taken city data and created new services to help the general public, like sending text messages or e-mails ahead of the city's street-cleaning schedule, reminding people to move their cars.

Another application, "Was My Car Towed?," allows people to input their license plates and find out where to find their cars. "You don't ever want to be on this website," Tolva said.

Once the government data are shared with the public, Tolva said, there's no predicting how the information may be used.

After the first season of the now-canceled television show Boss, featuring a ruthless Chicago mayor played by Kelsey Grammer, Tolva said, some enterprising fans obtained the movie permits issued by the city and tried to predict the story lines for Season 2.