Open data a rubbish idea? Not in Leeds where a bin collection app is cleaning up

Mon Jun 18, 2018

A smart refuse app is transforming bin collection in Leeds, and serves as a brilliant example of the power of open data – but will other councils follow suit?

A smart refuse app is transforming bin collection in Leeds, and serves as a brilliant example of the power of open data – but will other councils follow suit?

By Oliver Pickup

Bin day in modern Britain has evolved to become a challenge of wits that many of us fail, miserably. Is it the green, black, brown, or food bin that needs to be wheeled kerbside this week? And exactly which day is it again? If unsure, we tend to copy what our neighbours have done – sometimes in a bleary panic at dawn, after the rumble of the refuse collection lorry has jerked us from our slumber – and hope the rubbish is emptied.

This is far from a relaxed, foolproof plan. And not only is it frustrating when one’s bins are ignored, it is also costly for the local council, as they have to deal with the fallout and in some cases organise an extra collection. In fact, alerting thousands of residents about bin days twice per year – once at the start of the year, and the other time on the eve of the festive season – is expensive, mainly due to postage costs.

In a bid to reduce their annual bill on bin-related missives and improve recycling, the pioneering Leeds City Council – who in 2014 showed their progressiveness by opening up some city data, and promoting other across the city to do the same – turned to technology for an answer. After considering a number of tender options, the Leeds Bins app, presented by local software development company Imactivate, was chosen and officially launched in the summer of 2016.

“Leeds Bins is a great example of something that all local authorities could and should be doing [with open data]. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture … Getting some of the little things right is really important. It is as simple as saying: ‘We’re going to make it easier for our citizens to have their bins emptied, and in doing that we’re going to make it cheaper for us to do it, so we’re delivering them better value for money.” – Peter Hogg, Arcadis

Leeds Bins is available to download for free for iPhone, Android, and Windows 10 users, and it informs residents – who are required simply to input their postcode and match it with their address – when their green, brown, and black bins will be collected. Additionally, there is an option to sync that information with the user’s phone calendar automatically, and even a prompt to send a notification reminder, at a time of choice up until 10pm on the eve of a collection. No more bleary panic, then.

“Leeds is the second biggest city council in the United Kingdom – only Birmingham is bigger – so with almost 350,000 households to collect rubbish from, you can understand why there was a concern about money,” says Tom Forth, who has been Head of Data at ODI Leeds (a ‘node’ of the Open Data Institute) since 2014 and also founded Imactivate. “We are paid £1,500 a year to develop and maintain the app, and work with Bartec Auto ID, a Barnsley-based fleet-management company that manages the bin routes in Leeds using open data.”

Britain’s first open-data-driven bin collection app has been revolutionary with uptake after less than two years at close to an impressive 5 per cent. The council is also realising financial savings as it allows collection change messages, for example those at Christmas, to be sent via the app rather than sending letters out to properties across the city.

Now hordes of other councils officials across the country are queueing up for their own inexpensive, simple but extremely effective smart refuse solution, unsurprisingly. “Some other councils have bin apps, but they are done within a closed ecosystem, and therefore a developer might charge them £50,000 for it,” continues Mr Forth. “In this case, Leeds City Council has published the open data, and in doing so massively reduced their barrier to entry for people to build an app like this – and for public services – so it has worked out much cheaper, which is a huge benefit to the citizens.”

Feedback about the application – accessible via Imactivate’s website – has been glowing. “What a great app,” writes Steven V. “No more missed bin dates or sprinting out in your pyjamas when you hear the bin men!!” And the.banks comments: “Have recommended it to all my friends (you know you are getting old when the app you talk to friends about is the Leeds Bins app!). Please please please don’t ever retire it.”

Plenty of wry Yorkshire sense of humour is evident on the feedback forum, too. “My son has just moved so I checked his bin dates and found the app so decided to download it myself,” starts Anne Ward. “All my son will need now is for someone to roll out the bins!” Stephen Davey says: “The calendar and integration hotlinks to helpful sites is a useful extra touch that makes the app excellent to a standard beyond expectations. Does what it says on the bin! Badum-tss.”

Joking aside, the data generated from the app is seriously useful for Leeds City Council. As the Leeds Bins October 2017 usage report highlights: more needs to be done to raise awareness within less affluent areas. According to the research, wealthy older families make up 24 per cent of users, while wealthy young families (22 per cent), and students and young professionals (17 per cent) are not far behind. However, at the other end of the scale, there are poorer old people (4 per cent), poorer older families (5 per cent), and poorer young families (9 per cent).

“For the whole of Leeds we can see the specific areas of high and low digital engagement,” says Mr Forth. “That data is then used by loads of other people. It might be to target inclusion programmes, or improve bin-collection measures. For instance, in areas where there is low digital engagement the council will still hand out letters, and work out how best to get the information to them.”

Nick Lawrence, Business Manager of the Waste Management department of Leeds City Council, is pleasantly surprised that the app has been so popular, and believes it is down to its simplicity. “It’s amazing that we are covering around 5 per cent of the city with this app now,” he says. “That’s seriously impressive for a straightforward app that tells you which bins are being collected on what day, and also where to recycle. And that’s the beauty of it: it’s practical and very simple to use.”

Mr Lawrence believes that certain elements and upgrades might be added on in due course – including, for example, details on the nearest glass bank – but by and large, the app will remain the same. Though, now that the relationship has been established with Imactivate and with other local developers, and with tech confidence in Leeds rising, and more budding ideas are likely to come to fruition.

“It’s never good to stand still,” he continues. “What we’re looking at now is around what we can do in terms of maybe more notifications, when a car is blocking our bin wagons, or there is inclement weather. It would be great if the app was a bit more responsive and be able to provide a more tailored service to people. This is the next step.”

On the considerable pluses of Leeds City Council using open data, Mr Lawrence adds: “In the last few years it has been amazing how the work of the council-run open-data website Data Mill North has transformed the way that local authority works. We used to be very risk averse at opening data. We’re now saying: ‘Look, we’ve got this data. If it doesn’t contain any personal data, let’s put it out there and let’s see what people can do with it.’

“That’s pretty much what’s happened with the Leeds Bins app. Long may it continue. Because the more you do this, the more that we can see that as a local authority we have a lot of practical data that people could innovate with and turn it into something useful. In the long run it helps out the local authority, and in times of shrinking budgets, we can certainly do with as much help as we can get from open data.”

Leeds Bin was chosen by the ODI as one of eight examples of new service delivery models being created by open data. Read the report here.

Leeds City Council is earning widespread praise as well as counting the multifarious – and initially unforeseen – benefits of open data. “We began in 2013 by opening up data required for the Government’s Code of Transparency,” says Stephen Blackburn, Data and Innovation Manager of the Digital Information Service at Leeds City Council. But that was only the beginning.

“Then we launched Leeds Data Mill in March 2014 with a focus on publishing city data, not only council data. We promote the publication of data across the city, not just internally in the council. We work closely with ODI Leeds to promote each other’s work and data is hosted free of charge by local tech company AQL.

“As a council, we’re working towards being open by default and continually looking at how we can open up more data which supports our transparency agenda, helps to reduce Freedom of Information requests, and enables technologists to create new apps, websites and derive new insight.

“Additionally, we’re working with the digital community in Leeds to bring about added value to the datasets we publish. And through the council’s Innovation Lab events we’re bringing together stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds with developers to create new and innovative solutions to address city challenges. For instance, when we were looking to improve recycling rates it led to the Leeds Bins app.” All the prototype ideas – even those not taken forward – are published on Data Mill North’s website.

Abhay Adhikari, facilitator of the Urban Sustainable Development Lab, who partnered with Tom Forth’s Imactivate to develop the Leeds Bins app, and works on various other open-data-related projects within the city, says: “We put people first and use technology to mediate better relationships between the service providers and users. Leeds Bins is a perfect example of how this plays out. The app and the open data produce a single, powerful nudge unit that creates value for the residents and the city.”

Mr Forth is “proud” that Leeds City Council is leading the way when it comes to both open data specifically and technology in general, not least because it sparks innovation. “We love that Leeds make the bin collection timetable open data,” he states. “We love it because it allows other people to write solutions with the data. For example, there is now an Amazon Alexa [smart speaker] skill learnt in Leeds, so if you live in the city you can ask your Alexa to remind you when your bin day is – that’s all powered by open data.

“There’s probably about 10 similar apps or websites powered by open data in Leeds. It’s something that we do really really well, whether it’s social housing, healthcare, mental health, and so on. We’ve got loads of different things powered by open data and the truth is we would not be able to afford to do it otherwise. Leeds is a city with a lot of companies that work in digital and data, so the city council has said: ‘We’re going to take advantage of this.’ And it is the residents who benefit. Other cities aren’t quite as lucky.”

Julie Alexander, Siemens’ Director of Urban Development and Smart Cities, says: “Apps such as the one developed by Leeds provide a tangible benefit to both the local authority and to the people of the city. These are the kinds of use cases that resonate at the city level and the key to further development is understanding where in the city budgets are being spent. If the operational costs of cities are interrogated at a detailed enough level, efficiencies can be identified through system optimisation driven by data and digitalisation.

“These insights and data-driven interventions then lead to further opportunities that can often not be foreseen in the normal, day-to-day activities of council business. Giving organisations with analytics capability access to that data is the starting point for bottom-up transformation to drive the Smart Cities agenda.”

Peter Hogg, UK Cities Director at consultants Arcadis, agrees, and lauds the progressive attitude of Leeds City Council. He starts: “The Leeds Bins app is a classic example of a local authority doing what a local authority should do, which is to think: ‘What do our citizens want and need and how can we use the resources we have available to do things that will genuinely improve their lives?’

“The point here is it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. No one is saying: ‘We are going to completely regenerate Leeds city centre, and roll out a new secondary school programme.’ It is as simple as saying: ‘We’re going to make it easier for our citizens to have their bins emptied, and in doing that we’re going to make it cheaper for us to do it, so we’re delivering them better value for money.’”

Mr Hogg adds: “Leeds City Council Chief Executive Tom Riordan knows you don’t always have to think about the big, glamorous things. Actually, getting some of the little things right is really important. Leeds Bins is a great example of something that all local authorities could and should be doing. In incredibly budget-constrained times local government doesn’t have the resources to do that necessarily, however. Tom is an innovative and at times very brave CEO. And it is the Leeds residents who benefit.”

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Oliver is a multi-award-winning, London-based writer. He specialises in tech, business, sport and culture, has been by-lined in every English newspaper, and regularly contributes to The Daily Telegraph, The Times, The Guardian, and The Financial Times Weekend Magazine. On Twitter he is @OliverPickup.