The Rapidian

Software developers win contest for innovative snow plow app

A team of local software engineers have won the grand prize for Code Michigan 2014 with their snow plow data tracking application. The award of $15,000 will help the project move forward, yet much work remains to be done.
Ryan Graffy and Joshua Hulst show off their Sno-Fi app video

Ryan Graffy and Joshua Hulst show off their Sno-Fi app video /Eric Tank

Software developers Eric Buehler, Joshua Hulst and Ryan Graffy recently took the grand prize in the Code Michigan 2014 contest that encourages innovation and technology through the use of government platforms and databases. 

The competition that took place over the course of a weekend in Newago was one of three Michigan locations participating in the competition along with Detroit and Marquette. This was the competition's second year. 

The contest which opens up multiple data sets to participants, such as historical or landmark, designates specific prize categories but ultimately leaves the project choice open and up to the contestants. After reviewing the list and finding some interesting concepts, the team chose to work with the snow plow data, an idea that was discussed and analyzed prior to the competition.

The team of three initially entered the contest as something fun, a sort of side project with no real intention of winning anything. 

"We didn't really have a lot of expectations of going in there to win. In fact one of the first discussions we had was what do we want to get out of this? We said we want to learn some stuff and have some fun and see what happens," says Graffy.

The app will allow users to track what roads have been plowed and their condition based on real-time GPS data gathered from the the Michigan Department of Transportation. It takes into account the amount and rate of precipitation. For instance, just because a street has been plowed does not guarantee that it will remain safe and clear if their continues to be accumulation. The app will show the accumulation of snow indicated by the opacity of the the color coded streets. The more snow, the darker the red. The less snow, the lighter the red.  

Presently, the application relies on simulated data to fill in holes where the state simply doesn't have any data. The team found that although there is some infrastructure set in place in cities like Grand Rapids and Detroit, some of the smaller towns don't provide information. Moving forward,the real work will be in cooperation with governments to mine reliable data. 

"The big thing is getting it working off of live, real time data, which is not necessarily a lot of development work," says Graffy. 

Regardless of whether a city is large or small, Graffy says, "Everyone needs safe roads. So how do we come up with innovative, low cost ways of doing that?" askes Graffy.

"There is no reason why the system is limited to a specific city," says Hulst. "As long as we get the data points in we can make it work wherever, whether that's state-wide or nation-wide."

The system doesn't merely rely on planned plow routes. 

"We're not just trying to show so much where the plows are, as were trying to show the quality of the roads- which is a much more difficult problem to solve," says Graffy.

All three teammates are fathers and have approached this project from the perspective of what is practical and pertinent to families looking to safely navigate the roads in the blustery Michigan winters.  

"From our perspective, we don't really care where the plows are. That's not very interesting. We want to know where the roads are that are good. And while there's overlap between those two things, they are fundamentally different," says Graffy. 

Graffy stresses that they are a small team of three, all of whom have families and work full time jobs. The resources are limited. But they feel a responsibility to provide something useful for their community that will keep people safe. 

"We're trying to focus on small things that we know we can do and build on that," says Graffy.

Both Graffy and Hulst recognize the need for more resources and welcome anyone with computer engineering experience to contact them about volunteering time and talent. 

The application is in its preliminary stages, and the team is actively considering possible government partners. 

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