Rats, Leaves, Recycling, & Bikes: Ferndale’s New Civic Tech Solutions

Rats, Leaves, Recycling, & Bikes: Ferndale’s New Civic Tech Solutions

(Crystal A. Proxmire, Dec. 7, 2016)

Ferndale, MI- How can technology help residents and their local government to connect and solve problems in communities? That’s what students at the University of Michigan Citizen Interaction Design Program explored for the last three months in a partnership with the City of Ferndale.

Four teams worked on projects to address needs in the community.  They created interactive solutions for gathering data on rats in neighborhood, informing residents about leaf pick up times and suggestions, inspiring involvement in a park recycling program and tracking bicyclists’ experiences in the city. Some of the students’ work is already being used by the public, while other projects will be implemented in the spring.

The students presented their projects at an exposition at Rust Belt Market on Tuesday, where city staff and other interested parties got to grill them with questions while their professor Cliff Lampe observed for grading purposes.  Executive Director of Data Driven Detroit Erica Raleigh and Director of Technology and Civic Innovation for Chicago at Microsoft Corporation Adam Hecktman were also there to learn about the projects and give feedback to the students.

Rat Chat

Rat Chat is a way for residents to report rat sightings or evidence of rats.  Using Twillio, a text messaging service, residents text the number (248) 206-3149.  A automated system, known as a bot, sends questions to elicit the kinds of responses needed for proper tracking.  “The info is logged into the dashboard that the city can use to track the data and identify patterns,” said U of M student Gabriel Pomplius.  “The city gets an alert when there is a new message, and they can see the results with real time updates.”  Pomplius explained that messages that don’t make sense – such as nonexistent addresses – can be removed from the dataset, and that if people try to call the number they get an automated message letting them know that the line if for texting only.

Currently the City’s Code Enforcement team receives communications on rat sightings through a variety of channels including, phone, email, face-face, etc.  “Adam Loomis, the City’s top rat-cop is always focused on prompt responses,” said Assistant City Manager Joseph Gacioch.  “We hope that Rat Chat can unify our communications and assist Adam in aggregating rat sighting data.”   The data will be part of the City’s rat control efforts beginning in the spring.

Now that the project is ready for the public, those who spot rats or rat holes are encouraged to text the information to (248) 206-3149.


Adam Engstrom and his team took on the task of how to get citizens more engaged in recycling at city parks.  While adding recycling bins seemed like a given, the question became how to manage the recycling and how to see if the bins are being used regularly.  “We don’t know if there is enough recycling to justify the expense to the city.  There is labor involved and maybe extra trips to the park with vehicles etc.  And if people put trash in there it may just get sent to the landfill anyhow,” Engstrom said.  “We needed a way to come up with metrics.”

The plan calls for a grass roots approach to data collection and monitoring, and incentivizes citizen involvement.  “Ferndale residents, based on our research, really love their parks.  Even in cold weather people are out walking their dogs. We want to tap into that and have residents be involved.”

Each park will have one citizen volunteer who will serve as the “steward” of the park. The steward will go to the park twice a week, most likely on Friday and Monday, and will record the amount of trash and recycling in a Google Doc that the city can use to track the data.

The results could show the value, or lack of, in the recycling program. It can also determine if communications that encourage recycling result in any increase.

The steward could also be a good monitor for other problems at the park.  “Most likely the steward would be someone who lives next to the park or nearby, someone who goes to the park regularly and may notice things before DPW [Department of Public Works] does.”

The steward would also get a certificate from the city recognizing their contribution, and gift certificates from local businesses.  The students suggested testing the program in four parks:  Grabut, Geary, Harding and Martin Road.  This is likely to begin in the spring, and the city will release information when they are ready to recruit volunteers.

Engstrom said Google Docs was a good civic tech solution because there is no cost for development, it is a solid technology that is not likely to break, and most people can figure out how to use it.


Leaf pick up is another area where residents may not know how to get the best information.  The students who worked on the leaf collection issue talked to residents and followed conversations on forums.  They also used analytics to determine where residents were looking online to get information, and what pages they visited on the city website.

This data-based research helps the city know where people are inquiring from and can help them determine where leaf pick up is needed.

The group also explored ways to communicate leaf-related facts – such as not parking on leaves and letting people know when is the best time to put leaves to the curb.  They also explored the potential for letting residents who inquire know about other services available to them.  And there is the potential to use more online data to help with tracking and promoting snow plow service.

Ferndale Moves – Bicycle Experience

Ferndale Moves is a website that the City of Ferndale uses for many complete-streets-related ideas, including bike lanes and infrastructure projects. Students in the Ferndale Moves group looked at ways to support “better, safer and more cycling in Ferndale by sharing information that is relevant and useful to bicyclists.”

The students spoke to residents and decided to focus on the tracking of bicyclists’ experiences.  “When we talked to bicyclists, they told us about their ‘near-misses.’  By tracking near-misses we can help figure out where there are areas where the city might need to make changes, like signage or bike lanes,” said one of the students.

Ferndale Moves uses a texting service to allow users to input data about their experiences.  That data is then used to determine community needs.  People can text “Ferndale Moves” to (248) 794-2892 to report their bicycling experiences.

Mayor Pro Tem Melanie Piana and Councilperson Raylon Leaks-May were among those listening to the student presentations.  I’m really excited about all of them Piana said.  “We are all about trying to find creative solutions at the City and continuous improvement is important.”

All of the projects were created with Creative Commons licensing with the idea of other cities being able to use them as well.  To learn more about the Citizen Interaction Design Program, visit their website at https://www.si.umich.edu/academics/project-i-citizen-interaction-design.


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