A few weeks ago, Boston was experiencing a snow-pocalypse. Inches upon inches of snow had piled up, cutting off businesses and trapping citizens in their home. But early that morning, the Code for America offices received an email:

“Hi CFA team – Boston is currently in the middle of a blizzard! We are exploring a possible partnership with GroundCrew, called SnowCrew, which will enable citizens-volunteers to self-organize around snow shoveling for their neighbours.”

The email was from Nigel Jacobs from Boston’s Department of New Urban Mechanics — the department spearheading interesting and innovative new efforts to solve city problems — and they had found a way out of snow-pocalypse. Cellphone-using citizens would send pictures & GPS locations of unshoveled sidewalks to the government, and a set of volunteers would track the posts, ready to take action, watching for reports of snowy sidewalks, and use the GroundCrew program to coordinate their efforts to help out.

There remained only one problem: they couldn’t see where to go.

In order to display the reports on a map, Groundcrew needed to get its data in GeoRSS format — a common mappable data format — but Boston’s reported data didn’t generate the right output. There was technical barrier between a civic problem and a citizen solution. And that’s where we came in.

After receiving Nigel’s note, we were able to review the situation with the data, and fortunately found that this was just a quick coding mission. In a few hours that morning, we wrote a short script to translate city’s reports of snow issues to mappable GeoRSS, which piped in neatly into Groundcrew’s citizen mobilization platform. With a little bit of work on Groundcrew’s end, the citizen volunteers were able to see where help was needed, and they could take action and get involved.

Source code available on GitHub.