Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Digital Pheromone Trails

Every month my neighborhood has a community cleanup day where we all get together and pick up trash. We meet at a central location, grab trash bags, and wander off in various directions. It's a lot of ground to cover, but we don't really plan it out or anything; people just follow their nose (so to speak).

I like that approach; it seems to deal better with the unpredictable aspects of the project (quantity of participants, nature and location of litter, etc.) than a more structured approach would. In fact, I'd say a general rule is the more unpredictable the situation, the less good upfront planning does you.

One challenge, though, after things get rolling, is knowing which areas have been covered and which ones haven't. Are you not finding trash on this particular street because there just wasn't any to begin with, or because someone's already gone through? What we need is some sort of pheromone trail, like ants or bees use, so we can keep track of the actions of the hive without having to explicitly coordinate with each other.

Turns out this would actually be pretty easy to do if everybody (or most everyone) has a GPS-enabled smartphone. The coordinator sets up a project that we all log into when we pick up our trash bags, and then as we wander around we leave GPS trails wherever we go. At any time, you can pull up a map on your phone to see what areas have been covered and which have not. For that matter, the coordinator can look at the historic data from previous events to get a sense for which areas are being ignored habitually, so they can direct someone there next time.

Of course you don't want to keep checking your phone all the time as you're walking around picking up trash; it would be nice if it could just nudge you when you're going in the wrong direction. In fact it can, by alerting you with a sound or vibration when you're heading into an area that's already been covered. That way it can gently guide you in the right direction without you ever needing to take the phone out of your pocket.

I figure this sort of thing would be useful for more than just neighborhood trash pickup day…