Too many leaves? Columbia may start using AI on garbage trucks to enforce code violations

If you haven’t pulled out the weed whacker in a while, your Columbia garbage truck may tattle on you.

That’s because cameras on the backs of city garbage trucks could soon team with artificial intelligence to detect if your grass is too high, your yard has too many leaves, or if you’ve violated other city codes

The program would be led by code enforcement officials and would use technology from “City Detect,” a company based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

The technology works by using cameras to take pictures of the houses along garbage truck routes. AI is then used to analyze the pictures and detect code violations. When a potential violation is detected, a code enforcement investigator is sent out to verify it.

The program aims to make code enforcement faster and more efficient, and to improve the safety and appearance of the city.

The partnership between the City of Columbia and City Detect began when the late Joe Taylor, a Columbia City Council member who died in December 2022, reached out to Gavin Baum-Blake, CEO and co-founder of City Detect. Baum-Blake said Columbia is looking to embrace high-tech solutions to solve issues like litter, dilapidated housing and generalized urban decay.

The program could also help to mitigate overgrown properties and illegal dumping, which Columbia Chief Code Enforcement Officer Richard Blackmon cited as Columbia’s most common code violations.

“We see potential in it,” Blackmon said.

The city conducted a 12-week pilot program to test City Detect, and an extended pilot is set to begin in the coming months, Blackmon said

Columbia Housing Official David Hatcher said the 12-week pilot used three cameras and covered about half of Columbia. The pilot revealed a rough estimate of 7,000 potential code violations on 3,000 properties. The most frequently detected violations were overgrown grass, an abundance of leaves, cars parked in yards, debris, and litter, Hatcher said.

Reactions to the new program have been mixed.

Denise Wellman, president of the Cotton Town and Bellevue Historic District Homeowners Association, said she thinks City Detect would help preserve the beauty, integrity and historic significance of Columbia neighborhoods. She said she appreciates the city’s creativity and initiative.

“I really do trust our city and that they are invested in doing the very best we could possibly do. Are they perfect people? Absolutely not, but neither are you and neither am I. This is just one way to take care of our great city,” Wellman said.

The former president of the East Lake HOA, Floyd Jeffcoat Jr., said he also supports the program. But he’s not sure how his neighbors will feel.

He said some people would appreciate the increased accountability for homeowners, but others might feel uncomfortable.

Members of the Nextdoor app, a place for neighborhood residents to connect online, responded to a post from The State about City Detect with worries about a wave of code violations that would inconvenience residents. They also had doubts about the police department’s ability to enforce code violations once they’re detected and strong concerns about increased government involvement in their private lives.

“I think it’s a terrible idea. It’s more of the government spying on us and we have enough of that already,” Steve Brodie, a Nextdoor user and Forest Acres resident, said.

Tracy Truick, president of the North Columbia Civic Club and life-long resident of the Greenview neighborhood, was made aware of the proposed program after a friend saw the post on Nextdoor. Truick said she opposes the program.

“I feel like it’s an AI company’s way to sell a product to an establishment that thinks it would be helpful. However, that doesn’t take into consideration other people’s individual freedoms and privacy,” she said.

She said she would prefer more in-person involvement from police and code enforcement officers instead.

Baum-Blake said City Detect does not use cameras to collect personal details about residents. The company aims to look at physical structures and the surrounding environment.

The cost of the City Detect pilot program is $48,000 per year for the first year. After that, the cost would increase to $108,000 per year, Columbia Housing Official David Hatcher wrote in an email to The State.

The 12-week pilot and the first part of the extended pilot were funded by a beautification grant through the City of Columbia’s Public Works Department, according to Hatcher.

The Columbia City Council will make a final decision about implementing the program after the results of the extended pilot program are available.

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