Tag Archives: garbage

The next Open Data battle: Advancing Policy & Innovation through Standards

With the possible exception of weather data, the most successful open data set out there at the moment is transit data. It remains the data with which developers have experimented and innovated the most. Why is this? Because it’s been standardized. Ever since Google and the City of Portland creating the General Transit Feed Specification (GTFS) any developer that creates an application using GTFS transit data can port their application to over 100+ cities around the world with 10s and even 100s of millions of potential users. Now that’s scale!

All in all the benefits of a standard data structure are clear. A public good is more effectively used, citizens receive enjoy better service and companies (both Google and the numerous smaller companies that sell transit related applications) generate revenue, pay salaries, etc…

This is why, with a number of jurisdictions now committed to open data, I believe it is time for advocates to start focusing on the next big issue. How do we get different jurisdictions to align around standard structures so as to increase the number of people to whom an application or analysis will be relevant? Having cities publish open data sets is a great start and has led to real innovation, next generation open data and the next leaps in innovation will require some more standards.

The key, I think, is to find areas that meet three criteria:

  • Government Data: Is there relevant government data about the service or issue that is available?
  • Demand: Is this a service for which there is regular demand? (this is why transit is so good, millions of people touch the service on a daily basis)
  • Business Model: Is there a business that believes it can use this data to generate revenue (either directly, or indirectly)




Two comments on this.

First, I think we should look at this model because we want to find places where the incentives are right for all the key stakeholders. The wrong way to create a data structure is to get a bunch of governments together to talk about it. That process will take 5 years… if we are lucky. Remember the GTFS emerged because Google and Portland got together, after that, everybody else bandwagoned because the value proposition was so high. This remains, in my mind, not the perfect, but the fastest and more efficient model to get more common data structures. I also respect it won’t work for everything, but it can give us more successes to point to.

Which leads me to point two. Yes, at the moment, I think that target in the middle of this model is relatively small. But I think we can make it bigger. The GTFS shows cities, citizens and companies that there is value in open data. What we need are more examples so that a) more business models emerge and b) more government data is shared in a structured way across multiple jurisdictions. The bottom and and right hand circles in this diagram can, and if we are successful will, move. In short, I think we can create this dynamic:


So, what does this look like in practice?

I’ve been trying to think of services that fall in various parts of the diagram. A while back I wrote a post about using open restaurant inspection data to drive down health costs. Specifically around finding a government to work with a Yelp!, Bing or Google Maps, Urban Spoon or other company to integrate the  inspection data into the application. That for me is an example of something that I think fits in the middle. Government’s have the data, its a service citizens could touch on a regular base if the data appeared in their workflow (e.g. Yelp! or Bing Maps) and for those businesses it either helps drive search revenue or gives their product a competitive advantage. The Open311 standard (sadly missing from my diagram), and the emergence of SeeClickFix strike me as another excellent example that is right on the inside edge of the sweet spot).

Here’s a list of what else I’ve come up with at the moment:


You can also now see why I’ve been working on Recollect.net – our garbage pick up reminder service – and helping develop a standard around garbage scheduling data – the Trash & Recycling Object Notation. I think it is a service around which we can help explain the value of common standards to cities.

You’ll notice that I’ve put “democracy data” (e.g. agendas, minutes, legislation, hansards, budgets, etc…) in the area where I don’t think there is a business plan. I’m not fully convinced of this – I could see a business model in the media space for this – but I’m trying to be conservative in my estimate. In either case, that is the type of data the good people at the Sunlight Foundation are trying to get liberated, so there is at least, non-profit efforts concentrated there in America.

I also put real estate in a category where I don’t think there is real consumer demand. What I mean by this isn’t that people don’t want it, they do, but they are only really interested in it maybe 2-4 times in their life. It doesn’t have the high touch point of transit or garbage schedules, or of traffic and parking. I understand that there are businesses to be built around this data, I love Viewpoint.ca – a site that takes mashes opendata up with real estate data to create a compelling real estate website – but I don’t think it is a service people will get attached to because they will only use it infrequently.

Ultimately I’d love to hear from people on ideas they on why might fit in this sweet spot. (if you are comfortable sharing the idea, of course). Part of this is because I’d love to test the model more. The other reason is because I’m engaged with some governments interested in getting more strategic about their open data use and so these types of opportunities could become reality.

Finally, I just hope you find this model compelling and helpful.

Launching an Open Data Business: Recollect.net (Vantrash 2.0)

Have you ever forgotten to take the garbage or recycling out? Wouldn’t it be nice if someone sent you a reminder the night before, or the morning of? Maybe an email, or an SMS, or even a phone call?

Now you can set it up so somebody does. Us.

Introducing Recollect: the garbage and recycling collection reminder service.

For People

We’ve got the garbage schedules for a number of Canadian cities big and small (with American ones coming soon) – test our site out to see if we support yours.

You can set up a reminder for the night before – or the day of – your garbage pickup, and we’ll email, text or call you letting you know your garbage day is imminent and what will be picked up (say, recycling, yard waste or garbage). Our email and Twitter reminders are free, and text message and phone calls cost $1.50 a month.

If you think you, your sibling, friends, or your parents might like a service like this, please come check out our website.

It’s simple and we hope you’ll give it a whirl.

For Cities

We don’t think that Recollect is going to change the world, but we do think we can help better manage citizens’ expectations around customer service. For cities (and companies) interested in connecting with their citizens and customers, we have have a number of partnering options we have already started to explore with some cities.

More importantly, if you’d like to see Recollect come to your city, have your garbage schedule and zones available for download – like Edmonton and Vancouver.

On either of these fronts, if you are a politician, city employee or a business owner who needs a reminder service of some kind, please contact us.

Background – an open data municipal business

In June of 2009, as Vancouver was preparing to launch its open data portal I wrote a blog post called How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper in which I talked about how, using city data, a developer could create a garbage pickup reminder service for Vancouverites. Tim Bray called it his Hello World moment for Open Data. More importantly, Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, two Vancouver programers (and now good friends) took the idea and made it real. The program was called Vantrash, and in two quiet, low-maintenance years – with no advertising or marketing – it garnered over 3000 users.

Last week we retired Vantrash. Today, we launched Recollect.

Yes, Recollect is more beautiful than its predecessor, but more importantly it is going to start serving your community. At a high level, we want to see if we can scale an open data business to a continental level. Can we use open data to serve a range of cities across North America?

At a practical level, the goal of Recollect is more basic: To help make citizens’ lives just a little bit easier by providing them customized reminders for services they use, to the device of their choice, at the time of their choice.

Let’s face it: We are all too busy being parents, holding down jobs or enjoying the limited free time we have to remember things like garbage day or little league schedules. Our job is to make your life easier by finding ways to free our minds of wasting time remembering these small details. If you aren’t trying to remember to take out the garbage, hopefully it means you can spend a little more time thinking about your family, your work or whatever your passion may be.

In short, we believe that city services should be built around your life – and we are trying to take a small step to bring that a little closer to reality.

Again, we don’t expect Recollect to change the world. But we do hope that it will serve as a building block for rethinking the government-user experience that will lay the foundations so that others will be able to change the world.

Spark Interview on VanTrash – The Open Source Garbage Reminder Service

A couple of weeks ago I was interviewed by the CBC’s Nora Young for her show Spark:  a weekly audio blog of smart and unexpected trendwatching about the way technology affects our lives and world.

The interview (which was fun!) dives a little deeper into some of the cool ways citizens – in working to make their lives better – can make cool things happen (and improve their community) when government’s make their data freely available. The interview focuses mostly on VanTrash, the free garbage reminder service created by Luke Closs and Kevin Jones based on a blog post I wrote. It’s been getting a lot of positive feedback and is helping make the lives of Vancouverites just a little less hectic.

You can read more about the episode here and listen to it on CBC radio at 1:05 local time in most parts of Canada and 4:05 on the west coast.

You can download a podcast of the Spark episode here or listen to it on the web here.

If you live in Vancouver – check out VanTrash.ca and sign up! (or sign your parents or neighbour up!) Never forget to take the garbage out again. It works a whole lot better than this approach my friends mom uses for her:

Van trash reminder

Garbage Collection now IS sexy: Introducing VanTrash

garbage-can_rgbA few months ago some of you will remember I blogged about How Open Data even makes Garbage collection sexier, easier and cheaper. I suggested that, with open data, coders could digitize the city’s garbage collection schedule and city maps and enable citizens to download it into their calendar or even set up a recurring email reminder.

The post went fairly viral being picked up places like here and here. As a result, two weeks later Luke Closs and Kevin Jones, two Vancouver based coders with a strong sense of fun and civic duty emailed me and said they’d actually scrapped the data and had created an alpha version of the site. I offered my (meagre) skills to help move the application forward and we began working on it.

Today, I’m pleased to say that VanTrash has been launched. If you live in Vancouver (or don’t) please do take a look at the website.

Our goal with VanTrash is twofold. First: we want a great service that leverages public data to helpmake our fellow citizens’ lives a little better or easier. Second: we’d like to sign up 3000 or more users.

Since there are about 260,000 households in Vancouver (although many have private contracted garbage pick up) 3000 users would represent between 1-2% of all households for whom the city collects their garbage. There are not that many services that citizens opt in for that get this market penetration – especially services created for virtually nothing. The more users we get, the stronger the message we send to government’s everywhere that government is a platform and that we need to let citizens built on top of it. More importantly, we demonstrate that great, and useful, things can be done for cheap, a lesson citizens and governments need to constantly relearn.

So if you live in Vancouver, and you think there service would be helpful to you (or perhaps to a forgetful or absent minded friend, family member or neighbour) please sign up or spread the word.