Amid another summer of citywide trash pickup delays, two tech-driven cleanup evangelists think they’ve found a solution to hyperlocalize street cleaning by getting Philadelphians compensated for keeping their blocks litter free.
Sanitation worker and community advocate Terrill Haigler, aka Ya Fav Trashman, believes that empowering people to make positive change where they live is key to making even better things happen.
“I’m from North Philly where if people don’t do for you, you do for yourself, and maybe eventually the City would say [it] would be a part” of that work, he told Technical.ly. That attitude is one of the driving forces behind Glitter, developed by local social impact dev firm MilkCrate.
In January 2018, MilkCrate CEO and founder Morgan Berman began thinking of ways that she could use her company’s app-building platform to design something that could motivate people to pick up litter by paying them. She reached out to the City of Philadelphia to help. Local government often contracts with for-profit entities to bring services to its residents.
Funding for the app, formerly known as PhilaSweep, was included in the Philadelphia Streets Department’s FY2020 budget. But when the project got pushed further down the department’s list of priorities, MilkCrate was told an RFP process would be needed. However, in June 2019, Philadelphia City Council member Derek Green had approved a charter that said RFP’s would not be required for any local small businesses under $100,000 — the same amount in the City budget that had been earmarked for MilkCrate’s app.
Berman remembers Streets Commissioner Carlton Williams being unimpressed.
“Carlton Williams wouldn’t move on it,” she said. “I reached out to funders and got a foundation to cover the bulk of costs if [the Streets Department] said they’d pick up the tab moving forward.”
According to emails between MilkCrate employees, Williams and other City employees from spring 2020 and summer 2021, reviewed by Technical.ly, the Streets Department cited the recently relaunched Mayor’s Citywide Street Cleaning Program as its sole funding priority and a reason to not move forward in funding the app. A representative for the Streets Department confirmed separately that the MilkCrate proposal would need to be bid through the City’s RFP process and added that department leadership had encouraged MilkCrate to acquire its own funding to launch the pilot.
“Funding initially slated FY21 for a comprehensive and expanded mechanical street cleaning program has been restored for FY22 and is the funding priority for Sanitation,” spokesperson Crystal Jacobs told Technical.ly in an email. “While we have received funding previously for contracted litter improvement initiatives, we have not dedicated any funding to a street cleaning app.”
City funding never materialized for Glitter. Instead, MilkCrate has been developing the app pro bono, and has recently received some corporate sponsorships. The company will take a percentage to cover costs going forward.
In late April of this year, an undeterred Berman reached out to Haigler via Instagram and asked him to be a beta user. Her timing couldn’t have been better, as Haigler already has his sights set on developing a similar app.
“Every four months, I whiteboard my objectives and goals,” Haigler said, now a partner in Glitter. “In January 2021, I wrote, ‘Come out with an app.’ [Berman] came with the whole app already. I’ve always thought about, as the [Ya Fav Trashman] brand grew, to come out with an app that would help me help the city keep it clean.”
A digital marketing wizard in his own right, Haigler has seen firsthand how social media engagement can be maximized and turned into real world results. Partnering with Berman felt like a natural fit. For Haigler, working toward an app like Glitter was a natural evolution of the work he was already doing and that could reach a significant portion of Philadelphia residents.
“I thought about accessibility and reach,” he said. “Everybody in the city under 50 has a smartphone and knows how to download an app. A million people could download [it] at the same time. I would just have to use my likeness and brand to get people excited.”
Compensation would be allotted to app users based on a litter index, Berman explained: The more trash on a block, the more funding would be made available to compensate the people keeping it clean. Corporate sponsors such as sustainable product company The Rounds and supermarket chain ShopRite will provide funding to compensate the people keeping the blocks clean. Berman and Haigler’s goal is to secure a sponsorship for every area that wants and needs it and eventually get people’s time compensated at a rate equivalent to a living wage.
Berman expects Glitter to go live in the next few weeks. She declined to share MilkCrate’s tech stack.
As part of a team trying to get Philly clean without City support, Haigler said he hopes that Glitter can help give Philadelphia youth and other residents an opportunity to do something positive for their communities to counter the high amount of gun violence incidents that currently blight the city. Growing up in North Philly, he remembers his mother keeping him in extracurricular activities like chess and dance to stay away from trouble.
He recognizes the adverse effect the pandemic has had on Philly’s communities and believes Glitter can positively shift community members’ perspectives on the city.
“If we can find a way to go into a neighborhood and have them cleaning up and making money, it’s about exposing a perspective,” Haigler said. “Now we’re just shifting perspectives where before, someone might have thought all they could do is illegal stuff. They may be on the app for six months, but during that time they did something to impact [their] community.”
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.