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Columbus, Ohio, Garbage Trucks Collect Critical City Data

Waste collection is an often-underutilized source of municipal data, and in Columbus, integration with city GIS tools help trash pickup not only clean city streets, but enhance customer service.

Garbage Truck picks up trash can on side of the road
In the smart city world, the often-overlooked trash truck and its humble sanitation worker are emerging as prime sources of data collection, application and insight. Data-driven enhancements can range from better trash pickup itself to a set of ancillary services that include snow removal, recycling and inspections. If one considers sanitation workers as the collectors of not just trash, but also of data, one can see even more opportunity.

In a recent conversation with Dan Parker, the former director of solid waste services for Indianapolis and now chief of staff for the mayor, he noted, “Our drivers know more about the neighborhood than anyone else who does not live there. They know who has moved, which houses are vacant, the conditions of the yard and the dwelling.” And in his words, “If only we had better methods to collect and curate that information.”

Columbus, Ohio, recently took a few steps to achieve Parker’s vision. Tim Swauger, administrator of Refuse Collection in the Columbus Department of Public Service, has incorporated several technology solutions into bulk waste pickup in order to increase efficiency and improve service levels. Swauger has been administrator for six years and took over after the city had completed fleet conversion to trucks that automated the trash container pickup for the more than 344,000 households that receive weekly service. During his term, Columbus has constantly looked for ways to introduce state-of-the-art technology.

Customers benefit from easier, more immediate and more easily understood processes. Now, residents may go online or use an app to schedule a bulk pickup, which is then populated into the Refuse Collection routing system. Call center service representatives are also equipped with better information for scheduling pickups as well as responding to complaints. The documentation that accompanies a digital system provides benefits when a resident presents an issue.

“If a complaint comes in concerning a missed pickup or property damage, the photos taken from the truck show what was at the curb when our crew serviced the address,” Swauger said. “Those photos assist the call center operators in determining what occurred and whether a truck should be dispatched for a missed pickup.”

Route configuration is also a core benefit. Using much better and more quickly available data, Refuse Collection now estimates weight at the curb and then optimizes the routes. According to Swauger, “We were able to reconfigure smaller routes and increase productivity. We know week by week what our tonnage is. We take our historical graphs of those ebbs and flows throughout the season and adjust our routes based on historical data.”

As a result of a deep integration with the city’s GIS system, the configured route is delivered as turn-by-turn directions to the cab of the refuse truck. And if a truck breaks down on the route, supervisors can immediately calculate how much tonnage remains and where, then immediately reorganize the day’s collection and determine whether to dispatch another crew.

Marcus Seas, the Columbus GIS analyst for Refuse Collection, emphasizes the importance of GIS technology, pointing out that he uses ArcMap with the department’s new solid waste software to rebalance routes. “We maintain all our customer addresses using a polygon shapefile,” he explained, referring to the type of file ArcGIS uses to store geographic information. “Any address points within that polygon are our customers. We add customers anytime a new residential unit or multifamily complex comes online.”

Seas digitized all their routes and created dashboards for supervisors who can now quickly monitor and adjust routes and determine work progress through the GIS tools.

The extent of the data also helps the city in its efforts to encourage resident sustainability practices. Data is collected, analyzed and used to identify areas where sustainability measures can be improved to reduce the waste stream. This data allows for hot spot mapping to target bad waste practices.

Which takes us back to Dan Parker’s vision. These sanitation workers and their trucks, as they become more digitally equipped, can be the eyes of a responsive city. Information that can be gathered ranges from sensors that can spot emerging potholes to ways to capture insights about where a block needs better services for things like illegal dumping, abandoned cars or graffiti. Often the limitations on disruptive innovation will be driven by officials’ ability to imagine new practices and new public employee capacity.
Stephen Goldsmith is the Derek Bok Professor of the Practice of Urban Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and director of Data-Smart City Solutions at the Bloomberg Center for Cities at Harvard University. He previously served as Deputy Mayor of New York and Mayor of Indianapolis, where he earned a reputation as one of the country's leaders in public-private partnerships, competition and privatization. Stephen was also the chief domestic policy advisor to the George W. Bush campaign in 2000, the Chair of the Corporation for National and Community Service, and the district attorney for Marion County, Indiana from 1979 to 1990. He has written The Power of Social Innovation; Governing by Network: The New Shape of the Public Sector; Putting Faith in Neighborhoods: Making Cities Work through Grassroots Citizenship; The Twenty-First Century City: Resurrecting Urban America; The Responsive City: Engaging Communities through Data-Smart Governance; and A New City O/S.