MnDOT Tests Crowdsourcing to Improve Road Condition Reporting

The Minnesota Department of Transportation is testing a crowdsourcing application that will allow motorists to update winter weather road conditions on the state’s 511 system.

The Regional Transportation Management Center is planning a soft launch of Citizen Reporting in April, initially inviting MnDOT employees to post their experiences on routes they travel.  By next winter, the RTMC hopes to invite the public to do the same.

“We suspect that citizen reporters will be similar in ethic to the kinds of people who volunteer to be weather spotters,” said MnDOT Transportation Program Specialist Mary Meinert, who assists with day-to-day operations of 511.

511 Citizen Reporting
Iowa launched Citizen Reporting in November. Here is an example of a citizen report.

Currently,  MnDOT maintenance crews report road conditions, but Greater Minnesota lacks 24/7 coverage and its reports can become quickly outdated, especially on highways that aren’t plowed as frequently or lack traffic cameras, said 511 System Coordinator Kelly Kennedy Braunig.

Citizen reporting, especially on weekends, will help keep that information fresh.

“We try to explain on the website that we only update from 3–6 a.m., 3–6 p.m. Monday through Friday and as road conditions change, but we still get many emails requesting more frequent road condition information,” Braunig said.

Even a recent comment on MnDOT’s Facebook page pointed out the limitations in one area of the state: “Updates [only] come during government work hours.”

Growing Service

It’s actually a welcome sign that the public wants more from 511.

Seven years ago, when Braunig applied for her job, not many people used 511. In fact, at the time, she wasn’t even aware of the service, which provides information to travelers on weather-related road conditions, construction and congestion.

Today, 511’s online program and mobile app are accessed by more than 5,000 people per day during the winter (and about half as many during the summer). Data comes from MnDOT’s construction and maintenance offices, as well as state trooper data and incident response. This real-time information is available for all of Minnesota.

In the Twin Cities metro area, more than 700 traffic cameras allow MnDOT and State Patrol dispatchers to check the condition of 170 miles of highways and monitor traffic incidents at any time. Rochester, Duluth, Mankato and Owatonna also have cameras for incident management and traffic monitoring.

The 511 system’s greatest challenge is in Greater Minnesota, where road condition information is used daily by schools, ambulance personnel and truckers, as well as the traveling public, but information isn’t updated frequently outside of business hours.  Citizen reporting will be a beneficial resource.

Other states

Other northern states face similar challenges as Minnesota, but have been able to improve the timeliness of road condition data with assistance from truckers and other motorists.

In Wyoming, more than 400 citizen reporters (primarily truckers) call in road conditions to the Transportation Management Center. In Idaho, citizen reporters directly put the information into the 511 system. Minnesota will be the fifth state to adopt citizen reporting, following Iowa, which launched its service in November 2014.

Like Iowa, Minnesota’s citizen reporting will initially focus on winter roads.

To participate, people will need to take an online training module and then register their common routes, perhaps the highways they take to work or their way to the cabin on the weekends. These contributions will be marked as a citizen report on the website.

“Minnesota truck drivers are loyal users of the 511 system and we suspect they will also make some of our best reporters,” Meinert said.

Minnesota is part of a 13-state consortium that shares a 511 service technology provider. States with citizen reporting recently shared their experiences in a Peer Exchange sponsored by North/West Passage, a transportation pooled fund that is developing ways to share 511 data across state lines.

“With citizen reporting we hope to give people a voice and a chance to participate,” Braunig said.

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