Overflowing Garbage And Rats: There's (Gonna Be) An App For That

Wireless sensors could warn city planners when garbage cans are missing or broken, which often precedes rat outbreaks.

A Rat in New York

David Shankbone via Wikimedia Commons

A new idea could help reduce overflowing garbage cans and rat outbreaks: fitting trash receptacles with sensors that can tell how full they are, and when they are broken or go missing.

These sensors, wireless Bluetooth low energy (BLE) modules, could then transmit data to the phones of people who walk by, says Samrat Saha of the DCI Marketing Group in Milwaukee, according to the tech site O'Reilly Radar:

As pedestrians who have downloaded custom "garbage can" apps on their BLE-capable iPhone or Android devices pass by, continues Saha, the information is collected from the module and relayed to a Cloud-hosted service for action — garbage pick-up for brimming cans, in other words. The process will also allow planners to optimize trash can placement, redeploying receptacles from areas where need is minimal to more garbage-rich environs.

But it doesn't stop there. City officials have found a clear link between broken and missing garbage cans and rat problems, says Brett Goldstein, the former Chief Data and Information Officer for the City of Chicago and a current lecturer at the University of Chicago:

"We found areas that showed an abnormal increase in missing or broken receptacles started getting rat outbreaks around seven days later," Goldstein said. "That's very valuable information. If you have sensors on enough garbage cans, you could get a temporal leading edge, allowing a response before there’s a problem. In urban planning, you want to emphasize prevention, not reaction."

Though such sensors aren't currently deployed in cities, it would be simple to make them with existing technology (and there are for instance already so-called smart garbage cans.) Getting people to download apps and participate might prove to be a challenge; but then again, who likes trash and rats?