There is something distasteful about the way technology strips away the agency and craftsmanship of our labor. Uber is the most obvious example: London cabbies take pride in their encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s labyrinthine network of streets while Uber drivers passively follow the automated instructions from their phones. But, hey, it’s a job, right? And besides, why spend so much time studying maps when apps free our minds for the latest episode of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or a podcast on the history of the Roman Empire?
This week I visited the Mayor of Xalapa, Mexico and his award-winning open government team. I always thought that jalapeño chiles were named after Xalapa, and indeed, they are, but I learned they are originally from Tabasco and were brought to Xalapa only to be canned and shipped to other parts of the world — from hotdogs in the US to curries in India. Anyway, I also learned about a project the team is in the midst of implementing to improve the collection of trash by monitoring garbage trucks with GPS devices. Trash collection can seem like a small problem in the grand scheme of things, but I’d love for an economist to quantify the number of hours the average American spends per month on trash removal compared the average Mexican, and what that adds up to in wage loss.
In Mexico, there are no trash cans. On the designated trash day you (or your maid) must wait in the house until you hear the ringing of a bell in the street. Then you run as quickly as possible to deposit your trash bags in the passing truck cruising slowly away from you. If you miss the bell, or if the truck skips your street because it has fallen behind schedule, then you must wait until the following week. Or, as is often the case, you dump your trash on public land out of sight. Visit any creek or river in a Mexican city today and its banks are lined with trash that never made it into a garbage truck.
There is a weak social contract between Mexico’s residents and their waste removal services. Mexicans officially pay for waste removal as part of their annual property tax, but most assume it is a free service provided by the government and therefore can’t be depended on. It’s far easier to dump trash into a river or public park than navigate the bureaucracy of customer service through city hall.
Xalapa’s government partnered with the civic tech group Codeando Xalapa to put some cheap GPS devices onto garbage trucks and allow residents to see their exact location on a map just like in Uber or Lyft. Users can customize notifications to be alerted when the garbage truck is approaching the nearest collection point. And they can submit complaints directly to an oversight officer if there are any problems.
In the nearly five years I lived in Mexico City I am sure I wasted at least 30 hours of my life attempting to take the trash out, and that doesn’t include the time spent by my wife or our maid. Hell, I wish I had this app now in San Francisco, where our recycled goods collector routinely skips our house, forcing me to call a hotline and wait on hold to request they pass by again in the afternoon. (Instead, San Francisco residents take to Yelp to rant.) The good news is that this app could soon exist in Mexico City and anywhere else. The code is all open source and available on GitHub.
It would be lovely if garbage truck drivers were rewarded for taking an Ayn Randian level of pride in the craftsmanship of their work. It feels shitty to have a whole city looking over their shoulders as they go about their work. I hope Xalapa considers adding a function to the app that allows residents to thank their waste removal workers for their hard work and even offer tips through Apple Pay and Android Pay for extraordinary service.
Xalapa deserves credit for developing a cheap innovation to address a major headache. And cities still need more networks — like Red Mexico Abierto & hopefully a forthcoming international expansion of What Works Cities — to help spread these innovations faster.