Reduce, Reuse, Reboot: Teaming Up to Build A Regional Recycling Database

Lawrence Grodeska, Internet Communications Coordinator at San Francisco Department of the Environment, is steering a diverse group of local agencies to create something greater than the sum of their parts: a centralized database for residents to find businesses that offer recycling, reuse and hazardous waste disposal services in the Bay Area. Enter your location and your waste item — a soda can, batteries or unused medication — and the proposed application will deliver your options for local hazardous waste disposal businesses and other resources — a depot for creative reuse for artists, perhaps, or a residential pickup program.

Residents have been using Alameda County’s StopWaste.Org and San Francisco’s EcoFinder for years. EcoFinder is visited an average of 3,000 times a month and an iPhone app built on EcoFinder’s open data feed in 2009 has been downloaded more than 5,000 times. A number of online tools throughout the Bay Area exist that serve this function. But the technological tools are quickly becoming outdated and are redundant — data points are being maintained separately by different agencies for public use and many overlap.

What’s new about Grodeska’s project is the collaboration across counties and cities in the Bay Area. In addition to San Francisco and Alameda Counties, the cities of San Jose and Palo Alto in Santa Clara County along with Contra Costa County, are working together to combine their respective listings — hundreds of data points — in an effort to establish standards of efficiency and practice. Once an application is developed, they will also share code with other agencies that have a similar need to manage and publish this type of data.

“In addition to the benefit to having all the data in one place, we’re also trying to open up the data and make it as freely available as possible in as many different channels as possible,” Grodeska says.

It’s not uncommon for city departments to collaborate but it is unusual for cities and counties to spend the extra time to come to a consensus together, Grodeska says. “It’s just easier to keep things under one roof and steward the process yourself and not incorporate other feedback,” he says.

Phase one, which established a core working group of agencies committed to the collaboration, took Grodeska and Robin Plutchok, Program Manager at StopWaste.Org, nearly a year of meetings, phone calls, and wading though bureaucratic protocols over the details of how to fund the $100,000 project.  It also took time to get to a consensus about how the request for proposals, integral to the process of gaining approval for funding and contracts for any government project, would be written, and to refine the language used to explain the mission, especially when it came to the technical aspects.

“Widgets were surprisingly difficult to explain,” Grodeska says. “When I tried to talk about integrating the search functionality into the individual websites of the project partners, people would think I was suggesting we build new websites.”

The development of this Government 2.0 recycling database platform began when the participating Bay Area agencies compared notes and realized they wanted to upgrade their respective tools. SF Environment’s EcoFinder was built on Perl;’s Recycling Wizard was built on MS Access/ASP. It wasn’t easy to upgrade these sites to take advantage of modern web features.

The agencies looked at existing technologies such as, but they appeared to lack key features. Many used Flash – a multimedia platform used to add animation, video, and interactivity to web pages not widely compatible with many web-browsers, and did not correct for common misspellings for material types or allow multiple administrative users with different levels of permissions. The Bay Area team was also looking for the ability to share recycling information more broadly, releasing the software as quality open source data.

The agencies decided to pool their resources to create a brand new product. August 1, SF Environment issued a request for proposals for vendors and selected Common Knowledge as the vendor for the project.

Then talks turned to funding, decision making and project governance.  It was decided that the best way to organize all of the potential stakeholders would be to create two groups: a steering committee and a stakeholder group.

The steering committee has the “management-level” voice, issuing key decisions and ensuring the recycling database sticks to its deadlines and its budget. The stakeholder group gathers input from Bay Area counties not participating in the steering committee. Members of the steering committee are collectively paying the $100,000 it will take to complete the project. Participating thin the stakeholder group is free, with the idea that in the future there will be a nominal subscription fee for the use of the database tool that would support the maintenance of the tool itself.

Navigating the idiosyncrasies of each county requires a great deal of patience and attention to detail. Getting buy-in from each county’s stakeholders proved difficult because of the different structures within San Francisco, Alameda, Contra Costa and San Jose. San Francisco and Alameda  have one agency, but Contra Costa County has multiple agencies that deal with waste and all cities (including San Jose and Palo Alto) were in involved with Santa Clara County’s decision to participate.

But while part of Grodeska’s drive to tackle this project comes from a typical engineer’s urge to correct inefficiencies, he also sees the bigger picture: that the technology could be used by cities beyond the Bay Area.  The challenge appealed to him — and he says that sister environmental agencies from Portland and Chicago are already calling.

“Part of the motivation for me is that maybe this project could be some sort of a standard for recycling information in the public sector nationally and make it easier for people do to their job as far as focus on the outreach,” he says. “Certainly people look to us as leaders as far as policy, but why can’t we share our tools as well?”

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  • Jay Nath

    Great work Lawrence. Proud to work with someone like yourself that has the vision and courage to make this happen.