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Digital Transformation in Government Issue #84:
Community-driven ‘trashbot’

Chicago’s new trashbot will clean up the city’s river, and is a great example of both digital transformation and civic technology. Plus, the design and learnings are open-sourced!

Salsa Digital 25 June 2019

The trashbot

Chicago’s Urban Rivers is about to launch a ‘trashbot’ to collect the rubbish that accumulates in the city’s river. While Urban Rivers is an environmental not-for-profit, the concept of a trashbot (or as we’d say a rubbishbot) is a project that governments could adopt, and represents a relatively easy form of digital transformation in government.

The rubbish problem

Unfortunately you’ll see rubbish in many rivers around the world, especially city rivers, so it’s a common problem. (And let’s not get started on rubbish in the ocean!) Chicago’s Urban Rivers used to organise manual rubbish collection, with volunteers collecting rubbish from kayaks. But it soon became obvious that the problem was ongoing...the rubbish quickly accumulated again. So they had to look at other options.

Trash taskforce

Urban Rivers started a trash task force and came up with the idea of a trashbot to collect or herd rubbish and take it to a single point for collection.

During early prototypes they discovered piloting the trashbot around the river was kind of fun and this gave them the idea of allowing citizens to control the trashbot remotely. Citizens will be able to take the wheel via a website. In this way Urban Rivers hopes to engage the community, while also making the trashbot fun, so it’s almost like playing a video game.

The remote control also has a very functional use, because if someone sees rubbish in a particular area of the river, they can jump online and clean it up themselves with the trashbot.

Open source

Another fantastic thing about this initiative is that all the team’s designs and learnings will be open source. This will make the trashbot easy to repeat, and build on, in other cities. With many Aussie cities featuring a river, this open source system could be beneficial for government agencies in Australia.

Civic tech

The Chicago trashbot is also a fantastic and fun example of civic tech. Civic technology is a relatively new movement that focuses on how governments can engage with citizens and communities through technology. (If you missed our blog on Aimee Whitcroft’s 2017 DrupalSouth talk on open source, government and civic tech, you may want to check it out now.) Governments implementing a trashbot system will enable citizens to drive the trashbot remotely, helping to engage citizens while also improving the environment.

Salsa Digital’s take

We really liked this little US case study. The idea of logging onto a website to remotely drive the trashbot is fun, but the concept also has some major wins. Instead of a win-win, this is more like a win-win-win-win:

  • Helps the environment and our endangered waterways (big tick)

  • Shows how digital transformation in government can work

  • Is open source (another big tick here)

  • Shows civic tech in action through engagement with the community (the remote drivers)

So maybe we’ll see trashbots in rivers like the Yarra, Torrens, Paramatta and Brisbane River soon.

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