Tech trends and the future of local waste services

17 Mar 2016, 12:47 pm

paul_mackayby Paul Mackay, Technical Lead for the DCLG Local Waste Service Standards Project, with contributions from Lead Local Authority Project Advisor, Ben Cheetham

While our Local Waste Service Standards Project is a small pilot project, it is the first to look at an established local service from end-to-end and try to map the way towards the interoperable, digital public service of the future. This post discusses some ideas about how digital systems and common standards could be developed further across the waste industry, taking advantage of recent developments in Government as a Platform infrastructure and best practices in data management.

 

Canonical taxonomies

One idea we explored around November was whether the common taxonomies could have a canonical representation – a single origin – on a store such as opendatacommunities.org. These common taxonomies would be defined as linked data, and each term would have a URL. This official ‘canonical source’ is known in current tech jargon as a ‘canonical register’, or a ‘register’. I talked more about the taxonomies that could evolve into a canonical registers, such as the ‘missed collection events taxonomy’, in my last blog.

Despite the fact that our small pilot couldn’t invest all its resource into perfecting one national register, the principle is a valid one, as highlighted by the recent launch of the countries register at Sprint 16. This is the first of many registers planned by GDS to provide data as infrastructure, some of the building blocks that will help to unlock a wave of innovation and improved interoperability in the software that supports public services.

Registers are a logical way to create canonical datasets for things like waste materials, containers, bulky items, collection events and more. Currently, materials and waste types vary from the detailed, technical European Waste Codes (similar to the SIC codes that are being prototyped as a register) to the citizen-friendly materials list that we’ve sourced from WRAP. At the moment, variants of these terms appear on hundreds of council websites. These arbitrarily diverse terms could, however, be brought together in some interlinked registers. If such registers were created, it would be a lot easier for the software that supports waste services to join up more effectively.

Making existing tools more potent with registers

WasteDataFlow

WasteDataFlow is a tool local authorities must use to report to Defra on their waste and recycling services. In our discovery workshops it came out strongly as a potential area for efficiency improvements, with councils spending from two days to two weeks reformatting and manually entering data into the compulsory reporting system approximately every three months – especially since the introduction of ‘question 100’. Question 100 requires authorities to enter information about where the material they collect ends up in much more detail than ever before.

By referring to canonical registers, WasteDataFlow could help take the manual labour out of these reports and improve accuracy. For example, referring to a “waste premises” register (similar to this food premises prototype) that links the premises with other waste related information would allow councils to reference every waste processing site consistently, and to join up any data they have that refers to each site more automatically.

Edoc

More recently we learnt about edoc, a service allowing councils and companies to consistently record what happens to the waste they produce and handle in line with statutory reporting requirements. Our understanding is that although its adoption is growing, it is not yet being used as widely as it should be.

By adopting common taxonomies or referring to common registers (based on the material and/or waste stream lists we’ve developed, for example), it would become easier for organisations to integrate these new tools into their workflow, creating a better national picture of how waste is flowing, and saving organisations money in reporting and analytics.

Here are some of the lists of terms or taxonomies that edoc uses, which might easily be defined as common, shared registers, which could in turn trigger more consistent and accessible terminology across the industry:

  • Facility type
  • Pre-treatment option
  • Material
  • Recovery/disposal code
  • SIC code
  • Waste container
  • Waste fate
  • Waste state
  • Waste stream

Other data categories in edoc are significant datasets in their own right and may well be launched as official national registers in the coming months. So, edoc could store a reference CURIE, or compact URI, rather than full details, which would all live in the canonical register against a reference e.g. ‘company:12345678’ for:

Finally, there are a number of edoc components that are common to many local services such as “user” and “notification”. By defining these in a consistent way, councils and other organisations will be able to reuse the models or take advantage of scale through the use of national capabilities such as GOV.UK Verify and GOV.UK Notify.

I hope that for any future developments on WasteDataFlow and edoc, it will be possible to take advantage of data-as-infrastructure and use this to drive greater reuse and consistency of data across the industry.

Circular economy

The circular economy movement is exploding currently, from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation driving global action to grassroots movements like Open Source Circular Economy Days. Despite these movements, and leadership from the City of London, global challenges of climate change and and the economic pressures to put more into landfill than the essentials means this movement faces an uphill challenge. At a Resource event last week, Liz Goodwin, CEO of WRAP, suggested that companies must make a “leap of faith” in adopting the circular economy, as many are talking about it but not enough are taking action. Councils have a leading role in promoting the circular economy with citizens as they are the first line in managing much of their unwanted resources.

Recycle

The first step up the ladder is recycling, where quality levels could be improved and resource flows made more transparent. The Resource Association has created ReQIP, a specification of recycling quality that many reprocessors in the industry support. Codifying this in a machine readable format could make it easier for councils to offer guidance on how to avoid contamination and on what acceptable levels are. Reprocessor sites could publish any local variations from these common quality levels. Finally they could be compared against recorded levels of contamination measured from collections.

Reuse

Many categories of resources such as bulky items (furniture, etc) are often reusable. Organisations like the Furniture Reuse Network and Revolve have created standards that their network members require from second hand items. If these were made open and widely available in a similar fashion to the ReQIP specifications, information for citizens could be made clearer and more consistent so they can make better choices about the best route for disposing of unwanted items.

Reduce

Almost by definition, to build a circular economy the whole product lifecycle must be considered to support ‘closing the loop’ to create a zero-waste ecosystem. Manufacturers must build products that are durable, repairable and designed for disassembly. Standards have a vital role here too and BSI have kicked off a circular economy standards process to directly address some of these areas.

Looking forward

A recent report, “Waste Data in the UK” launched last September looked at the role of data standards in driving the circular economy. As one of the “overarching initiatives” it identified a common glossary and data standards as important:

“A number of stakeholders, including the industry and all regulators mentioned that common data standards and a shared glossary across the sector would significantly improve the quality of current data sets by reducing inconsistency and enabling datasets to be matched and compared to improve intelligence and understanding. …This includes standardising fields such as the format of names and addresses, ensuring the use of six digit EWC codes and replacing free data fields with drop down lists.”

Defra has recently launched a bold OpenDefra initiative to release many datasets managed by Defra as open data, which includes significant waste and resource related data. If more organisations across the waste industry took a similar approach it has the potential to generate innovation, much as the example of TfL opening their data has delivered a 50x return on investment.

In conclusion, it’s an exciting time for the waste management industry, and technology and standards have the potential to drive substantial and beneficial changes in the way we manage waste. We hope to see more of these pilots emerge, and we hope the sector continues to document their efforts and findings in the open (like this) so that all these great efforts compliment and build on each other.

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