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The map helping Philadelphia residents get their trash collected

When the pandemic threw trash collection into chaos in Philadelphia, a live map showing the latest collections was the way the city kept complaints under control.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought havoc to waste and recycling collection in many areas, including in Philadelphia. The city saw 6,000 complaints in July alone, as piles of rotting trash sat on streets and alleyways for days. In comparison, the same period last year generated just 3,400 calls, a representative told HERE360.

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Philadelphia residents have had problems getting their trash collected during COVID-19 times.

This was down to a mixture of factors. They included staff absenteeism due to the pandemic and weather extremes, and a 30% increase in the waste people produced at home since the pandemic meant they spent much more time there. The garbage eventually attracted rodents and insects, and the city went on a recruitment drive for more workers to keep up with it.

People were not happy, and the city turned to maps to appease them.

Using GPS devices on trucks, the PickupPHL map shows where trash and recycling are being collected in Philadelphia in almost real-time.

It is refreshed every half an hour, which means residents can put their trash out at the right time and inform the authorities if there are any delays.

They can view the information either on a map on the website, or on an app.

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The PickupPHL map uses color codes to show where trash and recycling has been collected that day.

“This new tool further demonstrates our administration's commitment to transparency and accountability in city services," Mayor Jim Kenney said, as reported on WHYY, a local news channel.

Getting back on schedule

Things have improved a bit since the early days of the pandemic.

Mayor Kenney said things had got back on schedule in recent weeks “and we want to keep it that way."

Nevertheless, one of the things making it difficult for residents was that delays have been unpredictable, and were not happening in the same areas at the same time.

“It'll provide real-time access and it will hopefully reduce the number of complaints and calls for missed collection around the city" – Carlton Williams, Streets Commissioner

That presented a challenge for the Streets Department. How could they communicate with the public if the situation was constantly changing?

Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams said the map tool was helping.

“They are now allowed to see in real-time where [trucks] are so that they can make appropriate decisions," he said. “It'll provide real-time access and it will hopefully reduce the number of complaints and calls for missed collection around the city."

Users can search their street to find out if trash has been collected yet and report delays.

Yet not everyone thought the map was the most effective use of technology that the City has to hand.

Nic Esposito, Philadelphia's former Zero Waste Cabinet Director, said the Streets Department ought to use the GPS on waste trucks to improve routes and collection times.

He said they are still using spreadsheets to decide the best route for trucks to take.

That may not be all that surprising. A recent survey found that half of the US' biggest importers still use spreadsheets to manage complex supply chains, proving that full digitization is a long way off in many sectors.

However, the PickupPHL map will still be welcomed by many as a step in the right direction for transparency and good communication.

It is part of the city's StreetSmartPHL  platform, which also shares information about snow plowing, permits and paving.

The map, which went live on October 1st, uses City of Philadelphia data including the basemap and imagery. The only exception involves street level imagery which is owned by the city and hosted by Cyclomedia.

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