Grids, Grades, and Garbage

Posted on 07/06/17 by Scott Frazier


For decades, low-income Los Angeles residents have observed that their streets were plagued by illegal dumping, and that it took the city months or longer to respond to cleanup requests. The city dispatched sanitation crews based on complaints that they received, and had no centralized information about where the need for service was most urgent. Residents, though, felt that their requests would go unanswered for months or even years.

In 2015, a Los Angeles Times study of Sanitation Bureau data found that there was a backlog of thousands of requests waiting to be cleared, and confirmed that low-income communities were disproportionately subject to long waits to receive sanitation service. Between 2010 and 2014, the City failed to respond to more than ⅓ of requests for service in low-income communities in Central and South Los Angeles, while completing more than 99% of requests from residents elsewhere.

But, now, Los Angeles residents are seeing an improvement in both the amount of time it takes for the City to respond to service requests, and in the overall cleanliness of their streets, thanks to the Clean Streets Initiative. Clean Streets, created by Mayor Garcetti, was designed to bring a citywide focus to Los Angeles’ problem with illegal dumping and unkempt neighborhoods. The initiative resulted in the creation of a data-centric model for dispatching sanitation crews that grades every street in Los Angeles on a quarterly basis. Last year, the City used recommendations from the City Administrative Officer to launch CleanStat, a new database of street cleanliness conditions.

CleanStat was modeled in part on practices in other major American cities like New York and San Francisco, that assign grades to their streets in order to measure the performance of their sanitation bureaus. Unlike those cities, however, Los Angeles’ Clean Streets Initiative seeks to document the actual conditions of every street in the city, instead of using a sample of streets to estimate overall cleanliness. CleanStat breaks up the city’s streets into short segments and then grades each on a scale from 1 to 3 based on the presence of bulky items, illegal dumping, loose litter, and weeds. The cleanest streets receive a grade of 1, and the streets whose need for cleaning is greatest receive a 3. CleanStat also allows the city to plan for more efficient use of its sanitation resources, helping to ensure that emergent needs can be addressed in a timely and cost-effective manner. The database helps the city accomplish this, by breaking up the city into over 1,900 subareas called “grids.” Grids receive a grade based on the average cleanliness of the street segments they contain, allowing the city to prioritize deployment based on which grids have the highest number of failing segments. CleanStat has given the city the tools it needs to assess where need is the greatest and to deploy its resources in the most effective way possible.

The Los Angeles Times says that the new data-driven response system “shows signs of success.” The CleanStat database, which is updated on a quarterly basis, notes a greater than 80% reduction in the number of grids with grades of 2 or 3 from the first quarter to the last quarter of 2016. The regular collection of data will allow the City, over time, to analyze trends and set more accurate budgetary expectations. As a result, residents of low-income communities should see continued improvement in the City’s ability to keep their neighborhoods clean. Because anyone can access CleanStat and observe where streets have consistently failed to earn a passing grade, residents will also have a more powerful tool to advocate for their fair share of street cleaning crews.

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