Help thy neighbor

By Chris Loeber

Though Chicago has not yet experienced a winter like last year’s, city officials have launched an initiative to encourage goodwill and cooperation among residents in preparation for any upcoming severe winter weather., a new website that connects volunteers with residents who need help shoveling snow, was launched on Jan. 3 by the city’s Department of Innovation and Technology.

This year, the city could see the worst of the nation’s snow and cold, according to a long-range forecast released by AccuWeather in October 2011.

The program through which volunteers register is known as “Snow Corps.” The website also includes “Plow Tracker,” which displays the location of snowplows in real time, and a feature called “Adopt-a-Sidewalk,” which allows users to claim a portion of sidewalk to shovel throughout the winter months.

“Last year, during the blizzard, I think we really saw neighbors helping neighbors,” said Jenne Myers, chief service officer at Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. “It was kind of in that theory, in that vein, that this got started.”

The city’s 311 call center received a large volume of requests for assistance from elderly and disabled individuals who were snowed in during last year’s blizzard, largely because of their inability to clear snow from their driveways and sidewalks, according to Myers. Many first responders, including policemen and firemen, were busy addressing emergencies across the city. Snow Corps is an effort to supplement resources that are often spread thin during severe winter weather.

“We said, ‘How about this year we be more proactive and a little more thoughtful?’” Myers said. “How about we have this ready group of volunteers who we can send to help folks when they need an extra hand in shoveling?”

In addition to volunteers who sign up through, Myers is communicating with local volunteer organizations like the American Red Cross of Greater Chicago and local churches to expand the Snow Corps network.

Everyone who registers with Snow Corps must submit to a background check in order to ensure the safety of those who receive assistance through the program, Myers said.

Adopt-a-Sidewalk was adapted from a program called “Adopt-a-Hydrant,” which allows users to claim hydrants so they do not get buried in snow.

Originally deployed in Boston, the program expanded to include a map of all sidewalks in Chicago, said Ankur Thakkar, deputy director of social media at the mayor’s office.

“It was built using code from a specific start-up called ‘Code for America,’” Thakkar said. “And in the same effort to keep things open, we’re going to make that code available to other cities to use as well.”

Friends can claim sidewalks as a group and use the online tools to stay connected and share shovels and other resources, Thakkar said.

As of Jan. 12, the Adopt-a-Sidewalk feature was still unavailable, but users can sign up to be notified for when it launches.

The Plow Tracker is part of a larger effort to increase transparency and accountability with the city—in this case, with city workers, Thakkar said.

“Every [winter], through 311, the largest request that we get is, ‘When is my street going to be shoveled?’” Thakkar said. “We wanted to create a way for people to see that as it happens.”

Plow Tracker was engaged for the first time on Jan. 12 as 184 snowplows hit the streets in response to the storm, according to a press release from the City of Chicago.