Cleaning Up Downtown with Data

Sustainable Raleigh Spotlight Feature

Litter happens. It’s an unfortunate side effect in a thriving city. Raleigh has grown by 59 percent since 2000. More people downtown means more detritus — cigarette butts, napkins, plastic bottles and wrappers — and keeping public spaces from becoming unsightly is a big job.

Last year the City took stock of the litter situation. “We kept hearing that people were saying downtown is dirty,” said Ivan Dickey, Assistant Superintendent of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources, (PRCR) “And we thought, ‘what’s dirty?’ ”

So for clarity’s sake, Dickey and a team from the City and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance decided to check out the litter — piece by piece.

Inspired by the #Litterati app — where people geocode and photograph litter — the Office of Sustainability asked the IT department to design a similar in-house tool.

Justin Greco in the City’s IT department used ArcGIS to quickly create a tool called the Litter Reporter. Greco installed the app on eight smartphones, and in October 2015 City staff conducted their first litter hunt downtown. Whenever they spotted it, they tagged the litter’s location, type and quantity.

The Litter Reporter app was profiled by ESRI, the world leader in GIS. The City of Raleigh was featured in its ArcNews magazine because of its collaborative and practical use of data. “Getting mentioned in ArcNews is kind of a big deal to us GIS people,” said Greco. “Every city that uses Esri will be getting a copy of it.”

“My first reaction was that I could have picked the litter up quicker than using the app,” laughed Dickey. “But without it we couldn’t have generated the data.”

Dickey said they wanted to narrow in on the problem. For example, if there’s constantly a pile of cigarette butts accumulating on a particular corner, the City can install a cigarette urn. If plastic cups are consistently found near a downtown restaurant or bar, the City can work with the business to monitor the area. However, it’s difficult to know what to do without specifics.

Crew members from PRCR and Solid Waste Services carried out a series of data sweeps at different times. They returned with heat maps that can be filtered by type of litter (paper, cigarette butts, etc.,) and the time of day or year.

The maps show clear litter hot spots. For example, the corner of Wilmington and Hargett Streets has been consistently litter-heavy, and two Bigbelly Solar waste stations were installed to better manage the problem. The survey also shows that cigarette butts, napkins and food packaging are the most common types of litter.

“There was speculation that litter from downtown bars and festivals were part of the problem,” said Dickey. “And although we did find bottles in some places, it definitely didn’t look like the day after a party.”

Dickey said that they were more likely to find cigarette butts and napkins that may have blown off a lunch table. He also said the just “putting out another trash can” doesn’t solve the problem.

“Litter is a multi-faceted issue,” he said. “You need someone in charge who understands human behavior and how to work with downtown partners.”

Fortunately, the City is looking for that person.

The litter audit sparked a conversation on who is ultimately responsible for downtown cleanliness. After discussion, staff recommended to City Council to collapse the responsibility into one division under the newly formed Transportation department.

The City is now searching for a collaborative and communicative individual to lead to the effort to keep downtown clean. The Downtown Coordinator job application is open through August 12, and Transportation Services Manager Chris McGee hopes to have the candidate on board before the busy fall festival season.

The best part about the litter audit process? Four different departments in the City and the Downtown Raleigh Alliance collaborated to make it happen, and the group was a finalist for the inaugural Carl R. Dawson, Jr. Teamwork Award. City Manager Ruffin Hall complimented the team’s work, saying that “it shows that the City of Raleigh is continuing to look for creative, effective ways to serve the community.”

The City plans on conducting more data sweeps quarterly to monitor the situation, especially as downtown continues to change and grow.

“It’s a good problem to have,” said McGee.

This Sustainable Raleigh Spotlight is one in a series of City of Raleigh sustainability stories.