The Philadelphia Streets Department has launched PickupPHL, an app that will allow residents to track trash trucks and their pickup routes in real time.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the department has been plagued with delays in pickup times that have required it to hire additional workers. The timing, however, is coincidental: Commissioner Carlton Williams told Technical.ly his department developed the app over two and a half years with additional support from the Office of Innovation and Technology.
PickupPHL is the latest addition to the Street Department’s StreetSmartPHL platform, a digital resource people can use to understand the status of city services without needing to call 311. In spring 2019, the department launched PavePHL, which allows users to track the status of paving operations.
“I think one of the problems with trash and recycling is people don’t know when trash and recycling will be collected,” he said. “But with computer technology, we can use data to point out real time wherever we are in the city of Philadelphia.”
Williams explained that when sanitation crews receive district assignment each morning, that data is uploaded to a system. With PickupPHL, the public then has access to a GPS-enabled dashboard that displays a map of daily routes across the city and can see how close trash trucks are are to routes or how far they are delayed.
A color-coded map of Philadelphia neighborhoods indicates what days people can expect to see their trash picked up. You can remove it and see what the trucks are doing throughout the city on a given day.
On the map, lines of different colors indicate what pickups were made. Green lines mean trash was picked up, blue lines mean recycling was picked up and yellow means both were collected on a block. To keep information as current as possible, the map can update as frequently as every 15 minutes.
IT manager Michael Matela created the PickupPHL app in-house, which Williams considers a testament to the talent of city employees. Matela explained that while the city has had GIS maps for years, the advent of using GPS technology helped bring PickUpPHL together. He worked with IT director Izak Maitin to design a system that could allow GPS tracking of each trash truck to interact with GIS routes and allow people to see which street had been visited in the process.
Maitin said using the PickupPHL platform to monitor trash pickup is “a paradigm shift” and marks the first time the Streets Department has managed the sanitation of 40,000 street segments in the city with digital tools. An algorithm was developed by the Philly Vehicle Locator to connect Verizon data to those segments.
“Our approach has been to take the GPS data off Verizon GPS and process this data so that we can tie it to a street center line,” he said. “From that line, we are joining that data to the route. It’s the combination of seeing what routes a truck travels and connecting it to GPS.”
Maitin estimated that the Streets Department receives 600,00 pieces of data today in a process that was done manually before now. He wants to see the PickUpPHL updated in the future dynamically from each vehicle and with tablets.
Part of the reason PickupPHL took almost three years to launch came from the scale and costs associated with outfitting more than 800 vehicles with GPS that could allow them to interface with GIS routes, per Maitin.
PickupPHL’s launch marks a new era in trash collection for the city, but the process is not flawless. Because the system is dependent on GPS connecting with GIS routes, it is possible that location coordinates may not be precise at times and reflect nearby targets instead of exact locations. And employees are still learning how to use the system.
Overall, Matela said feedback on PickupPHL has been positive; the system runs on ESRI’s ArcGIS Online, a cloud-based platform that city servers seem to be handling well.
With the added transparency in trash collection, Williams is aware that the public may hold his department to a higher standard because of Pickup PHL and believes it’s for the best.
“I do think there is a system of accountability when you release your operations to public,” he said. “But I think it’s a good thing. It limits questions people have about your operations. I think it builds credibility with the public when they can see it, touch it and feel it. For the most part I think the positives outweigh the negatives.”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.
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