How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper

So presently the City of Vancouver only shares its garbage schedule (which it divides into north and south) as a PDF file. This is a pity as it means that no one can build any apps around it. Imagine a website or Iphone app that mashed up google maps with a constantly up to date city garbage pick up schedule. With such a application one could:

  • Simply punch in your address and find out your garbage zone (no more guessing if you live on the border of a zone)
  • Get an email or SMS notification 15 minutes, 1 hour, 12 hours (whenever!) before pick up
  • Download the garbage schedule into your calendar using XML, HTML or ICAL


Let’s face it, everyone could do with a garbage day reminder. I can imagine that there are 1000’s of Vancouverites who’d sign up for an email notification.

Maybe this seems all very simply, nice but unimportant. But this is more than just creating convenience. What are the implications for such an application?

For citizens:

  • Let’s face it, for many of us, it would be a convenient and nice to get a reminder of when the garbage is going to be picked up
  • It would improve citizen’s appreciation for city services
  • It might also increase the likelihood citizen will recycle as the notification would enable them to better plan and prepare for garbage pick up

For the city & taxpayers

  • Every day 100s of Vancouverites forget to put out there garbage out for pick up. If garbage isn’t picked up, it piles up. This creates several new risks and costs to the city including: increasing likelihood of rodents and health hazards and an increased risk that some residents will dispose of their garbage inappropriately/illegally
  • When garbage is not put out an expensive city asset (the garbage truck, fuel, garbage men) all pass by unused. This means that taxpayers money is not used as efficiently as it could.
  • Moreover,  when garbage isn’t put out there will be twice as much at the house the next week. Multiply that by 100’s of houses and the very quickly the city must deploy extra garbage trucks to deal with this unusually large volume of garbage – costing city taxpayers.

What would be the total value/savings of such an application? Hard to gauge. But add up, time saved by citizens better able to plan around garbage pick up, a small reduction in illegal garbage disposal, a small increase in recycling, slight increase in garbage pick up efficiency and I’m sure the total value would be in the low millions, and the direct savings for the city in the low $100,000 per year. That is not insignificant – especially if all the city had to do was free the data and allow an intrepid hacker to code up the website.

Of course it doesn’t end there. A reliable source tells me the city collects far more data about garbage collection. For example when the driver can’t pick up the garbage can, they make an entry on their device as to why (e.g., it is under a tree). This entry is sent via a wireless connection back to a City database, and includes the highly precise coordinates of the truck at that moment. Then when a resident calls in to find out why the crew did not pick up the garbage can from their residence, the operator can bring up the address on a map and pinpoint the problem.

Such data could also be on the website in an option with something like “Why didn’t my garbage get picked up?” By sharing this data the city could reduce its call volume (and thus costs). With open data, the possibilities, savings and convenience is endless.

29 thoughts on “How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper

  1. Steph D

    Very interesting micro-level application of liberated data.One problem I have to point out David. When you mention:”When garbage is not put out an expensive city asset (the garbage truck, fuel, garbage men) all pass by unused. This means that taxpayers money is not used as efficiently as it could. Moreover, when garbage isn't put out there will be twice as much at the house the next week. Multiply that by 100's of houses and the very quickly the city must deploy extra garbage trucks to deal with this unusually large volume of garbage – costing city taxpayers.”That assumes that there are very large fluctuations from week to week. Statistically speaking, the law of averages would dictate that the actual number of forgetful residents would be fairly constant from week to week, and so your double-load this week is counter-balanced by someone who forgot to put it out. Big picture, my guess is there isn't that much fluctuation based on forgetfulness.That being said, we can't know for sure unless we get a peak at the volume data, so we're back to your original point!

  2. david_a_eaves

    Completely agree Steph – I was thinking the same thing when I was writing the post – that it probably averages out. But then I though – maybe certain neighborhoods or housing types are more variable and got to the same conclusion as you – without the data, it is hard to know!The one reason there might be a big fluctuation based on forgetfulness is because of unusual holidays… I can imagine they create problems. Great comment – thank you for pointing that out, definitely don't want to overstate the case.

  3. Rob Cottingham

    Let's take it another step, and install GPS on every garbage and recycling truck. Mash that real-time data up with your street address and the trucks' routes, and the city can give you a “The truck will be there in 20 minutes!” SMS.

  4. Rumi Shivaz

    While reading this post, I was thinking about the same thing as Rob's comment. Would be really good to get a SMS 10 or 20 minutes before pick-up.

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  6. Adrian Tritschler

    The drivers and unions would never stand for it; all their shortcuts, missed streets when they run late, out of hours pickups and early knock-off times would show up. Where I live they're not supposed to start before 6am, they routinely arrive at 05:15 and in summer they'll come at up to 4:15 because they want to finish the route before it gets hot. Any calls to the council are met with a useless “they're not council employees, its a contractor, we'll have a word with them” as though being a contractor makes them a law unto themselves and not tied to a *contract*

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  9. Clint

    I like the idea of having the garbage service send reminder text messages/e-mails. If they do that, they should throw in an extra feature where, once per week, they clean the previous week's message out of your inbox.

  10. pascalvanhecke

    Hi,Last month, there was a barcamp/govcamp event in Amsterdam “Hack de overheid” (“hack government”).Participants could come up with ideas and have them (partly) developed/prototyped the same day.The idea I suggested then, and tried to develop together with a dev guy (but we didn't get to a working prototype in time) was to crowdsource the screenscraping job that had to be done for every different city/municipality in the Netherlands to build the very application application you just described.So: you come to the garbage website, punch in postal code (and maybe house nr), and you'd get an ical feed/calendar widgets, and instructions on how to add it to your widget dashboard or calendaring application. OR: the message that for you location, no such feed yet existed, and that you had to screenscrape the data yourself from the local city council website, and post that (ical)feed to the garbage website. Possibly parameterizable with postal code (and house number).Even though we didn't have a prototype ( and still haven't) we actually got the first prize…

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  14. Peter Recore

    We have this in Cambridge, MA for street cleaning and it's awesome! i get an email and a txt message before street cleaning happens on my block. In our case the city itself does it,not a mashup using open data, but I can attest to the usefulness of the general concept!

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