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Philly Uses Tech to Tackle Litter

This spring, Philadelphia will pilot a new litter index aligned with the city's Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet, and digitize the results.

With the stroke of a pen just seven weeks ago, Philadelphia joined other major cities like New York and Los Angeles in creating a “zero waste goal,” seeking to boost its trash diversion rate to 90 percent by 2035.

Upon signing an Executive Order on Dec. 20, Mayor James Kenney created the city’s first-ever Zero Waste and Litter Cabinet. And that cabinet's 16 members — nine city government entities including its departments of transportation and planning and development, and seven community stakeholders including school officials and members of Keep Philadelphia Beautiful (KPB) — have a full calendar.

They're tasked with creating a comprehensive, data-driven action plan for waste reduction and litter prevention; increasing the percent of diversion from landfills and incinerators; preventing and better managing litter and illegal dumping; partnering with government and business; and challenging residents to keep their own neighborhoods clean.

But even as officials and community leaders scrutinize the origins of trash in Philadelphia, the birthplace of the U.S. Constitution is also bringing technology to bear on the ongoing problem.

This spring, officials will pilot a litter index in two neighborhoods. Using metrics from a similar paper-based Keep America Beautiful (KAB) survey, they’ll painstakingly and systematically map every piece of litter, garbage and trash they see — then digitize their findings with GIS software and surveying products.

“When we started looking at the program and how we enhance it, the first idea was digitizing. We’re basically creating surveys for field workers in Philadelphia to go out and take a survey of every square inch in Philadelphia,” said Zero Waste and Litter Director Nic Esposito.

Ultimately, large and small trash should become big data for the city.

“What this comes into is, we’ve set up some really great systems through our Department of Innovation and Technology to aggregate that data and crosscheck it, so we can really see where resources need to be driven, where hot spots are,” Esposito said.

The pilot should begin in March, though city officials were reluctant to tip where they’ll try it first, and the survey will likely go citywide in late summer or early fall. Philadelphia’s goal is to do two citywide litter indexes a year, Esposito said.

On the back end, officials will be able to use the results to plot their response in trash-strewn areas and habitual dumping grounds. But on the front end, they’ll be creating a website where residents will be able to check an area’s litter score and see what resources — anything from street trash cans to friend groups — are available.

Esposito and Michelle Feldman, director of KPB, the local KAB chapter, praised the mayor’s creation of the cabinet, which has already held a meeting.

But beyond strategic coordination, both agree the index will also provide a chance to apply behavioral science to trash and littering, possibly with researchers from a local university.

“I think data is already helping to shape what the behavioral science subcommittee is looking at in terms of measuring interventions. Data is going to be very important there, I think also [in determining] what messages work,” said Feldman, who sits on the cabinet’s behavioral science and communications and engagement subcommittees.

Through studying data, she said, officials may be able to help shape effective anti-litter messages and strategies by observing which result in cleaner areas.

“I think the key is, litter abatement is different than litter prevention. You really need great data to put together a good plan for litter prevention,” Feldman said. “It’s a really powerful means of citizen engagement, which I think is part of solving this problem too, making folks feel like the institutions around them are listening, but making them also feel like it’s a two-way dialog.”

Besides, she added, if people see their government responding, they’re more likely to engage in positive behavior and cut down on littering.

Mark Wheeler, chief graphic information officer in the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, sits on the cabinet’s data subcommittee.

His office is formulating a survey index for grading the litter that city officials will find when they pilot the litter index.

Wheeler compared the process to existing applications like the city’s Address Information System, which lets official users input an address, then see on a computerized map whether it’s a valid residence.

“The litter is going to have some kind of similar aggregation of data,” he said. “They’re going to work on the survey itself and the survey is going to tell us the quantity of litter they’ve seen, the frequency. But we know we want to look at the number of vacant lots on the same block, the number of 311 [calls]. These things may be contributors to why there is so much litter.”

Other issues, Wheeler said, could also be aggregated as data to suggest additional reasons why litter is a persistent problem in certain areas. Crime and theft rates, for example, could be keeping people from helping clean up their neighborhoods.

Philadelphia may also use its data and related quality-of-life indicators to emulate cities like Boston and Los Angeles in creating dashboards, he said.

“We could do that but take it up a notch, integrate it geographically so you could see what’s going on in that neighborhood,” Wheeler said, noting the city has had many requests for dashboards using information that is sometimes still paper-based.

“There’s so many opportunities for one project to improve the other,” he added.

Esposito compared the cabinet’s overall effort to assembling a “pretty complex” puzzle, but said action on trash should happen sooner rather than later.

“We’re not going to wait until 2035 to clean up Philadelphia," he said. "That has to happen right now.”

Theo Douglas is assistant managing editor for Industry Insider — California, and before that was a staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes covering municipal, county and state governments, business and breaking news. He has a Bachelor's degree in Newspaper Journalism and a Master's in History, both from California State University, Long Beach.