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Six months of binnovation in Leeds.

Seven ways open data and open innovation has made waste services in Leeds better and more efficient in 2020.

1. The Leeds Bins app got live alerts and links.

For four years the Leeds Bins app has provided reminders to the people of Leeds on when to put out their bins, what to put in them, and where to take the things that they can't put in their bins.

The app is powered by multiple open datasets published to Data Mill North and updated as frequently as every day. There are no data sharing agreements to sign. No permission is required. It is open data and it makes everything work much more easily and cheaply than it would otherwise.

With over 10 million bin days looked up, at least one active user in over two thirds of Leeds 17867 postcodes, and around 50,000 active app installs across iPhone and Android, it is a great success. Leeds Bins is one of the most-used apps in UK government.

In 2020 the app was updated to include the ability to display status updates and alerts customised to the home location of the user. Leeds City Council publish messages openly and they are repeated in the app. This is how open data and open innovation work. And this is what it looks like.

Screenshot of Leeds Bins with a status update.

In this example the alerts contain a link to Leeds City Council's new waste disposal site booking system.

2. Waste disposal site booking system.

At the peak of Covid-19 infection many local councils focused their staff efforts on maintaining domestic waste collections. During lockdown many household waste sites were closed as a result, and to reduce unnecessary journeys and maintain social distancing. When tips opened back up there was high demand and many councils implemented a booking system to avoid long queues and overcrowding of their sites.

Leeds City Council's recycling centre booking system

Leeds City Council's system was developed by local company Aire Logic extremely quickly and it has been a great success. It has been emulated in other parts of the country such as Birmingham, and praised in the local press and by the people of Leeds.

3. Uploading Leeds' open data on bins to Open Street Map.

Where is a litter bin and does it include recycling? Two very common questions without good answers.

You cant search for bins in Google Maps or Apple Maps.There is no public dataset, closed or open, on where the hundreds of thousands of UK public bins are placed. Even within a single city, the local government rarely knows where all of its bins are. The Markets might maintain and empty some bins, the transport authority might look after bins at bus stops, Network Rail might deal with bins at train stations, Parks might deal with bins in parks, Waste Services usually deal with bins that no-one else has taken control of. Some bins are even maintained by volunteers and charities. And of course each organisation tracks their bins separately, even if they collaborate on maintenance and emptying.

In Leeds, Waste Services publish their bins as open data on Data Mill North. So Patrick at ODILeeds uploaded them to Open Street Map (OSM); a free and open mapping services that anyone can contribute to. This involved discussion on Open Street Map Forums to gain community support and the addition of a new tag to better describe bins worldwide. He also needed to write some scripts to ensure that bins that were already on OSM were not duplicated.

The results are amazing. Leeds now has the most complete bin data on OSM. I wrote some software using the excellent WebGL Heatmap Leaflet Plugin to create a heatmap of all 30,000 bins on OSM in Britain and Ireland to show that.

A heatmap of public litter bins on Open Street Map. Leeds' open data on bin locations has been synced with Open Street Map.

But we know that bins move or change what waste they can accept all the time. Editing them on OSM is pretty easy, but it's not very easy.

4. A tool for viewing the OSM data on bins and making changes.

So Stuart at ODILeeds created a rubbish version of the tool that he's been using to help people add trees to OSM. It makes the task of updating where bins are and what waste they can accept highly focused and more efficient.

A tool for editing bin data on Open Street Map.
Credit: ODI Leeds

There are a few things left to fix. Until that's done the tool runs on the development version of Open Street Map. That means you can play with it without worrying and suggest improvements more easily. Once it's ready, we'll switch it over to the live version of Open Street Map.

5. A tool for processing smart bin data

We're on our way to knowing where all of the litter bins in Leeds are, but we have another question. How much waste gets put in each bin?

With traditional bins this is hard to measure. Staff do rounds and collect the waste in bins when they pass. Weighing or measuring the volume of waste is time-consuming and thus costly, so they don't.

But Leeds has smart bins. There are currently 31 of them. These bins have a solar panel on top that powers a compressor that compacts the rubbish inside and a radio that reports how full they are.

These bins have been used successfully for years to increase the efficiency of Leeds City Council's waste services and to keep the streets clean. The bins can hold up to five tim0se as much waste as a normal litter bin and they only need to be visited when they are full. On one very busy day (Leeds waterfront festival day) a single smart bin in Leeds was emptied 15 times, the equivalent of emptying a traditional bin 75 times!

The smart bins also collect data on how full they are all the time. We've been processing the last five years of data from those bins. I wrote a few hundred lines of code to process it into something more useful and we're now working to make that data open so that anyone can see and use it.

6. A tool for visualising the processed smart bin data.

But we know that some people can't wait for the data to be open. They want to see how bins are being used in Leeds right now!

Thats why we've built a tool to visualise and analyse the last five years of Leeds smart bin data. It's online now, you can look at the data, you can see when big city-centre events took place, and you can see when people stop visiting the city centre between Christmas and New Year, and following the outbreak of Covid-19.

Weekly waste collected in smart bins in Leeds City Centre since Jan 2016.

This data is already being used by business and government in Leeds to understand how, for what, and where people are returning to central Leeds as the lockdown restrictions to combat Covid-19 are lifted. In combination with Leeds' excellent open data on footfall and in the absence of key data on transport that cities in less centralised countries enjoy, this data is proving valuable.

7. A tool for estimating litter production, litter collection, and optimal placement of bins.

We've also been working with Leeds by Example to explore how we might use data to optimise the placement of bins in Leeds city centre. We might want to maximise waste collection (and keep the streets clean) or to maximise correct sorting for recycling (to help meet Leeds' climate goals). Ideally, we'd do both at once.

To do this we need a model of where waste is produced.

We think that waste is mostly generated close to sandwich shops and takeaways, so we've used the Food Standards Agency's excellent open data on where they are to model that. It's pretty much the same code that I used for mapping every Pret and Greggs in the UK.

We know that waste is mostly collected in bins, and increasingly we know where they all are.

Putting these two things together on a map and subtracting waste collected from waste produced shows where new bins are needed, and where existing bins can be removed to save money. We've built a tool that you can play with. It's not quite finished yet, but we're on about the fifth version now, and we think we're getting close.

A screenshot of an early prototype of our tool for placing bins in Leeds.

What's next?

That was six months of innovation in waste in Leeds. Working in the open, publishing open data and open source code, telling people what we're doing and sharing what other people have done. There are things I've missed, and lots of stuff that I don't know about.

Next we're going to be looking at real-time status updates in the Leeds Bins app. We'd like to let people know if there's disruption with the waste services that mean their bin wasn't collected and have it flash up on their phone without them having to open the Leeds Bins app. We'd like to let people know how well they are recycling and give them constant feedback on Leeds is doing at meeting its ambitious waste reduction and recycling targets as part of its sustainability commitments. We're working on those challenges now but they're really hard.

Real-time push notifications in the Leeds Bins app has been a goal for three years. For a combination of budget constraints, constraints placed on us in Leeds by the UK government, and bad choices by me, we haven't achieved it.

I'll save my moans for a personal blog post. Here we will keep trying. We will keep sharing what we do.