Can two million bin collections go digital? Why shouldn’t they, says Susan Upton, Chief Officer of Waste Management in the second largest metropolitan local authority in England

Susan and her team have worked closely with the Urban Sustainable Development Lab to develop a service that uses data from two million bin collections a month to improve waste and recycling collections. In this post Susan reflects on the challenges and opportunities of embracing a citizen-led approach to creating a Smart City.

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At the launch of Leeds Bins with Cllr Lucinda Yeadon, Dylan Roberts and Susan Upton

Like all interesting journeys, we embarked on this Smart City project by setting ourselves a challenge — why not? Leeds City Council is the second largest metropolitan local authority in England with over 775,000 residents. We provide two million bin collections a month with an increasingly complex logistical operation. We are certainly data rich. With an estimated 80% of people in Leeds accessing information online, we also know there is an eager audience that wants to use innovative solutions. So why can’t bin collections go digital?

What if technology could support positive behaviour change and help us discover new efficiencies?

Working with the Urban Sustainable Development Lab (USDL) we defined the scope of the problem. The aim was to improve the waste and recycling collection service provided to the residents of Leeds. Making this a reality would complement the Council’s existing behaviour change programmes to ensure residents know when to put their bins out for collection and increase recycling. It would also support the Council’s desire to move away from the costly and often ineffective paper based communications sent to residents specifically to remind them of collection days.

The development question had ignited our ambitions. Although the line of sight was clear, the journey to the solution had a few bumps to navigate along the way. We had to acknowledge the complexity, scale of waste and recycling collections across Leeds. We also had to integrate this initiative with other improvements programmes that were either planned or in progress.

Here’s how we worked with data about two million collections a month to tell a story about waste

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Leeds Bins uses data to encourage users take a number of simple actions to increase recycling

The biggest challenge was to ensure that the wealth of information and data held electronically was current and accurate. This sounds easy. With two million collections a month and the need to keep collection routes up to date with information such as new properties, the reality is different. Luckily stepping up to digital by default had already commenced with a data cleansing exercise to provide accurate information to the Council’s website.

The next challenge was a change of mind set and thinking about doing things with the residents of Leeds. We have a fully functioning and supported web-site where people can access their bin collection day and recycling information and an electronic means to report issues. The solution needed to complement these offers and meet the public’s increasing expectations to access services quickly, at convenient times and in ways which suit them.

Leeds Bins is a step in the right direction

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Leeds Bins user-rating and reviews on Google Play

Leeds Bins, developed by USDL member Tom Forth can be used on Android and iOS devices. I believe it’s a step in the right direction as it offers the following principle features: The ability to save four weeks of bin dates to the calendar on the user’s device. An event reminder is pushed through to people the night before and on the morning of the scheduled collection. It includes an interactive map showing local bring sites and bottle banks. It also includes top four customer contact web links e.g. report missed bin, what goes in each bin, waste permit and my bin day.

Leeds Bins is now being tested with residents and we are monitoring its performance and associated elements like data security. Early feedback is that it is modern, reliable and with the push reminders answers the perpetual question, “Which bin is it this week and what day is it being collected?”

With Leeds Bins we believe we have risen to the challenge to provide an accessible way for people to always remember to put their bins out on time as well as quickly finding out what goes where so that the right things go in the right bins. However, it has also provided a platform and a tool that can be used by a variety of staff across the Council to advise, inform and dispel myths around waste and recycling collections provided in Leeds.

We’re confident that Leeds Bins app will support our efforts to provide better access to information and shift recycling behaviours, that will provide cash savings on disposal costs. This journey, which has allowed us to go from concept to solution in a short space of time, has given us a valuable blue-print to address complex issues. It is no surprise then, that my team and I are keen to embark on another development journey that begins with a question — Why not?

Leeds Bins is available on the App store for iOS devices. Android users please click here to download Leeds Bins from Google Play. You can follow Susan on Twitter @wastelesssusan.

The Sustainable Development Innovation Lab has been named as one of 2016’s New Radicals by Nesta and the Observer! We are one of 50 radical-thinking individuals and organisations changing the UK for the better. We build ethical solutions that are co-produced with residents and scaled by governments. For more information about our projects please visit our website.

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