Free Our Data: the blog

A Guardian Technology campaign for free public access to data about the UK and its citizens

Show Us A Better Way winner: Can I Recycle It?

The overall winner of the government’s Show Us A Better Way competition is Can I Recycle It, which (inter alia) “will tell people what the recycling facilities are in their area, based on their postcode.”

Congratulations to Adam Temple, 26, from London. He explained his project to the Cabinet Office, which awarded his prize: “Each area has a different recycling scheme with different capabilities, so it is not surprising that households are unsure what can be recycled. Local information may be of some use, but there are a million and one things that people want to know about recycling.

“Having put in their postcode, the householder will get an easy-to-read version of what is recyclable and what is not in their area. After that, they could type in keywords for the specific piece of rubbish that they are concerned about. If it is in the database, the householder would get an immediate answer.

“If not, the question could be forwarded to the appropriate person in the local council. That person could then amend the database, and that way the website would gradually get more useful.”

(I’ll vouch for it: my local council only recycles plastics 1, 2 and 3 – though actually what would really help would be if manufacturers of packaging were obliged to print in large diagrams which of the many recyclable plastics theirs were. It gets kind of boring holding packaging up to a 100W light to try to discern whether the number two millimetres high inside the recycling logo is a 3, 5 or 6.)

Show Us A Better Way attracted more than 450 entries from around the world, with around 70,000 people visiting the website over the summer. The total prize fund was worth £80,000.

Cabinet Office minister Tom Watson, who spearheaded the competition, said (to quote the Cabinet Office press release):

“This is a world-leading competition that has attracted entries and praise from as far away as Australia, India and the USA. Show Us A Better Way has really captured the imagination of people in their own communities. This is about taking service design out of Whitehall and to the people who use it.

“By trusting the public and throwing it open to them to put forward their ideas, the solutions are of real, practical use. Ultimately, this is about building something from the bottom up rather than having Whitehall dictate from the centre.”

Watson also said: “This ingenious idea is a simple map showing you where recycling facilities are and what they will accept, so you can quickly and easily find out where to take your rubbish.”

And there’s even a quote from Hazel Blears, who we hadn’t noticed being entirely in favour of these bottom-up things recently: “The positive response to this competition rightly highlights the power and benefits when local people have their say, have access to good information and have the enthusiasm and the chance to make a difference locally. I am pleased that extra funding from CLG will help take some of these creative ideas forward and help encourage the use of new technologies and community media. Access to information – which these awards aim to promote – is an important part of empowering communities.”

Michael Wills – who has been an important driver of more open access from within the Ministry of Justice, and who would have helped raise prizemoney for the competition – said: ““The Government is committed to encouraging people to get involved in civic activities within their communities and across the country. Show Us A Better Way highlights the innovative ways in which people can do this.”

Just as important, SUABW seems to have inspired a similar project in the US – where there’s now a competition called Apps for Democracy running in Washington, DC, soon to be the home of that Obama fellow – who might have some people on his staff who will take note. Only $20,000 prizemoney, but it’s a start.

And congratulations to everyone again who entered SUABW – it has inspired a lot of thought within government about what can and could be done with data once it’s made available.

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