In These Cities, Fleet Vehicles Are Roaming Data Centers

Last fall, Montgomery, Ala., Director of Public Works Chris Conway and Director of Fleet Management Walt Lilley connected with Rubicon Global and its SmartCity waste and recycling solutions platform. They outfitted 80 sanitation department vehicles with a smartphone loaded with Rubicon’s hauler-specific app and a telematics “pod” capable of communicating with headquarters and each other.

Lilley said he was hopeful adding telematics would improve driver safety and vehicle health, opting for catastrophic-level vehicle health alerts. “I can’t even count the number of saves. I really don’t know. But our lot is a lot fuller every morning, because when we get notifications and contact sanitation leadership, they tell the drivers to bring them in,” he said.

The new technology also improved customer service, Conway added, but why stop there?

“From the very beginning, we said, ‘Look, we’ve got north of 1,000 miles of streets here, and we’re driving them two or three times a week. What else could we collect?’” Conway said. “So our drivers have the ability to input certain items like potholes, property maintenance issues, graffiti — anything we might be relying on an inspector to canvas.”

If a driver spots an overgrown front lawn, for example, he or she can pick up the phone, snap a photo, and select one of up to 10 customizable “exceptions” listed in a pop-up menu. The location is tagged automatically, and the alert is routed to the city’s 311 system.

“Rubicon coined the phrase ‘roaming data center,’ and we bought into that concept,” Conway said. “Obviously your primary mission is waste and sanitation. We’re not going to turn you into an inspector. We’re just saying that, if you see it, you can tag it.”

Stop Spinning Steel

Also onboard with the SmartCity pilot was the City of West Memphis, Ark., where Amanda Hicks serves as city engineer. She had been on the job for about a year when the partnership was proposed last fall, and she had crunched enough numbers to know her city’s sanitation department had room to improve.

West Memphis was far behind similar-size cities in waste tons per route, pickups per hour, and stops per route. So in addition to driver safety and vehicle health, Hicks said she told Rubicon she wanted to track performance-based metrics: how many times each “tipper” empties a can, pickups per hour, and time spent idling. The system also tracks landfill diversion rates by logging and tagging each weigh station visit.

And like Conway and Lilley in Montgomery, Hicks has discovered the system benefits customer service as well.

“If the resident’s can is filled with water, their dog is loose, or the gate to the dumpster is locked, they don’t even have to call dispatch. Take a picture with the phone. It’s tagged to that address. It takes a lot of the guesswork out.”

Sanitation workers have tough jobs and aren’t often recognized, Hicks said, but they do draw their share of complaints. Empowering them to resolve those complaints — and lodge their own — must inevitably improve their working lives.

“It gives them a little pride in their work. ‘I saw that pothole and I reported it.’ Sanitation can become a culture where, even though you want to take pride in your city, it’s hard to get motivated to go over and above. I think sometimes we have to change the culture and take back the pride,” Hicks said.

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