How Maps Helped Improve the University of Minnesota Snow and Ice Removal Program
• The University of Minnesota Facilities Management Landcare team employs the latest geographic information systems technologies for managing its snow and ice removal program.
• Staff used geospatial technologies to create a unique Snow Removal Map with layers highlighting removal routes, potential hazards, instructions, contracted work sites, and snow storage.
• Leveraging mapping tools, university staff reduced equipment damage, saved costs, and streamlined communications and coordination between departments.
In Minnesota, where winter snowfall averages 54 inches a year, one university created a smart map to help it remove snow and ice to keep roads, sidewalks, and ramps open for campus activity. Using geographic information system (GIS) technology, a team at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (UMN), built the unique Snow Removal Map to record information about 105 miles of campus snow removal routes.
"A university campus is a busy place. There are tens of thousands of students walking using sidewalks as a main way of getting around," said Tobias Fimpel, a GIS manager and developer at UMN. "And if they can't get around safely, that is a real problem."
Before developing the Snow Removal Map, the Facilities Management Landcare team had managed snow removal using color-coded computer-aided design (CAD) maps and lists, requiring yearly updates that were challenging to coordinate.
"We had a pinch point where there were only a few of us who could use CAD or had CAD available, and all the edits had to go through this group and then get the updates back to everyone else," said Chad Schmidt, landscape architect, and GIS coordinator at UMN. "The minute we made an update, there would be more edits, so it was never ending."
Schmidt knew his team would benefit from a better approach to removing snow so he contacted UMN's Facility Information Services GIS department in early 2019 to collaborate on a mapping tool for the next snow season.
Building a Campus-Wide, Comprehensive Snow Removal Map
For over a decade, UMN staff used enterprise GIS technology to manage workflows and campus infrastructure such as tree inventories, irrigation systems, outdoor furniture, planters, sweeping routes, and more.
Both the Landcare and Facility Information Services GIS teams wanted the Snow Removal Map to be an effective tool, so they first worked together to identify which attributes and data to include. Then the GIS team used existing data from their enterprise database, CAD files, and other data sourced by the Landcare team to create a demo of what was possible.
"Initially, it was a lot of back-and-forth on how to organize the data and make sure that stakeholders within Landcare had their voices heard," said Livia Betancourt Mazur, GIS analyst at UMN. Betancourt Mazur also pointed out that an important part of the early project stages was creating a demo mockup map to help the eventual users see what was possible.
Schmidt agreed that the demo was key to successfully designing the Snow Removal Map for his team. "Once they saw it in action and what it could be, people really got excited." Landcare staff wanted layers on the map to include outlined snow removal routes and the locations of hazards, such as benches, bike racks, maintenance holes, and fire hydrants, that can become invisible under several feet of snow.
After the teams solidified the vision for the Snow Removal Map, it was time to build it. Betancourt Mazur built the foundation of the map using desktop GIS applications ensuring the map’s data could be visualized and shared across software programs internally and externally. The Landcare team also wanted notation capabilities in the map to leave specific instructions such as "blade only use" or "avoid." "All around the map, we have these little messages for frontline staff, so they know where to avoid certain hazards or are aware of other kinds of interesting details of the landscape," said Betancourt Mazur.
In addition to mapping snow removal routes for university frontline staff, separate maps are used to track snow storage areas and areas that are serviced by a variety of external contractors. Using GIS software enables this information to be edited, organized, and shared efficiently among all involved parties.
Spanning 65 hours of GIS work and nine months of collaboration, the Snow Removal Map launched in September 2019. The final product groups the total of 105 miles of snow removal routes into 40 distinct route name categories. The use of group layers, as well as data-driven symbolization and labeling techniques, makes it possible to view each route singly or to view them all simultaneously as a whole. Staff readily access the Snow Removal Map on desktop or on mobile devices using an all-in-one GIS mobile app.
"The big thing with snow removal being on GIS and web maps is that anyone who has editing permission can make an update, and it is available for everyone to see," said Schmidt. "It has been a huge benefit to my team."
Schmidt says the map helps new staff members learn route details, so they don't miss spots. The map also allows others to take over a route if a team member is out sick. Ultimately, Schmidt says the map has become an open form of communication helping his team prioritize workloads and prevent equipment damage.
Expanding the Snow Removal Map Capabilities
Staff across the university have praised the map for making snow removal more efficient and effectively invisible to the public. "Not that we don't want to tout this or show anyone this map, but if they don't think about it, then we are doing our job," said Schmidt. He adds that internal users have embraced the map, citing the ease of use and accessibility.
Schmidt and the GIS team are exploring future capabilities, such as integrating the map with their billing system for an automated process. Contractors can estimate the time spent plowing an area of their route and charge accordingly. Schmidt hopes for an automated billing system that breaks down the work by percentages of the total route and pays based on route completion. "It would be great to have this system automated so if we change a route, then it changes how we bill for our work," said Schmidt.
Overall, Schmidt feels the map provides more flexibility as well as the ability to integrate other data to locate issues. "We have already converted to GIS, but there is a lot that we can still do to automate. Really, the possibilities are endless for us."
While the Snow Removal Map has proved to be an invaluable tool for UMN, it has also fostered a positive cross-collaborative experience. "From a GIS perspective, we really appreciated working with the Landcare team. It was rewarding to collaborate and create a tool that was immediately used and has continued use," said Betancourt Mazur.
Schmidt and Betancourt Mazur believe that the Snow Removal Map can serve as a replicable model for other universities to tailor for their facilities' operations. "I think the key is just getting an idea going—don't be afraid to start with something simple in GIS. Make a map, and get the creative juices flowing," said Betancourt Mazur.
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