Photo courtesy of Chenai Takundwa
Graffiti and Trash Go to the Cloud
Towns and cities around the world are plagued by graffiti, "fly-tipping" and other environmental crimes. But a simple idea that leverages cloud computing is helping communities across the U.K. fight back.
September 12 , 2011
While the recent London riots have dominated the headlines, leaving communities with heavy hearts and a vast clean-up bill, there is another environmental problem that costs the city dearly on a year-round basis: Graffiti. While hardly on the same scale as violent rioting, graffiti has a detrimental effect on communities, triggering other criminal activity by changing the tone of an area and attracting gangs to its streets.
Of course, the problem is not just in London, but it is here that some innovative thinking using cloud computing has helped turn around the situation.
The London Borough of Lewisham struggles more than most with anti-social activities like graffiti, which until recently has cost the local council some $290,000 a year to clean up. The cost for London as a whole is closer to $10 million; for all of England, the cost is estimated to exceed $45 million. In short, graffiti has never been tackled effectively, and the longer vandalism is left untreated, the more the perpetrators are encouraged to leave their mark. Something needed to be done.
Cloud-based web site enables direct action
Nigel Tyrell, head of environment in Lewisham, came up with a solution. He spearheaded the design of a simple yet effective website called LoveCleanStreets (http://lovecleanstreets.org/Reports) that encourages street cleaners, buildings maintenance staff and the public to upload photographic evidence of local graffiti. This visual reporting allows the local authority to target action swiftly.
At LoveCleanStreets, the public can see something is being done, and vandals are fast losing interest in spraying the streets of Lewisham because their handiwork isn't getting the same exposure it once had. Over the last four to five years, the council has seen a 73 percent reduction in graffiti, which Tyrell attributes to the accelerated response. The time taken to process a complaint has been cut by 87 percent. "Before, the reporting process was very drawn out," he notes.
What started out as a simple website is now a highly-repeatable solution that Tyrell's team has now moved into the cloud, allowing the solution maximum flexibility and scalability through access to unlimited IT infrastructure on a modest pay-per-use basis. This also means it can share the platform with other councils.
Having seen Lewisham's success, local authorities across the U.K. have begun replicating the initiative using their own branding. The authorities are also using the same back-end systems, so the incremental costs are negligible. This is important as authorities are under pressure to cut costs but still maintain vital community services.
"It makes no sense for everyone to develop their own web applications if we're all trying to do the same thing," Tyrell says. "To cope with funding cuts, we need to be pooling ideas and resources a lot more, which cloud computing makes possible."
Local authorities in other countries, such as Jamaica, are beginning to show interest, too. Jamaica has strong links to Lewisham as residents in large sections of the borough have Jamaican roots.
Creating new revenue streams
Graffiti isn't the only problem being tackled by the LoveCleanStreets web initiative. Lewisham also uses the platform for reporting and managing other environmental crimes, such as the illegal dumping of waste known as "fly tipping." At its peak, Lewisham was collecting more than 14,000 tons of it; by the tax year ended last April, waste dumping was down by half, thanks to more people taking ownership of the problem and acting promptly. Removal times have improved from 2.5 days in 2004 to under a day now.
In Lewisham, the project is contributing to revenue generation, too. Behavior has improved to the point that refuse collection is more closely monitored now. This has enabled Tyrell's department to promote more efficient commercial waste collection contracts. "Last year, we increased our income from trade waste by $32,000 by doing this," he says.
Hopefully, other local authorities across the U.K. will soon be mirroring this success, as they piggyback on the cloud-based web service.
Lewisham has nothing to gain financially from the wider roll-out of the application it created, since its technology partner holds the intellectual property rights to the software. But the benefits to Tyrell's team are good PR for the local council, as well as the gratification of having made a difference. Says Tyrell: "This has been an affordable and easily-implemented scheme which has fired people's imagination, and shows just what's possible when communities pull together."
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