25. Citizen Science with Seán from OpenLitterMap

Citizen Science

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

And that day I remember it very well. My interest just shifted dramatically because up until that point I was interested in video games. 

And you know, playing whatever games with my friends over the weekend or whatever. But when we, when we were introduced to GIS. 

It just looked to me like a game for the world. 

Incorporating this data, putting into a map, playing with it, seeing what could be done with it. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

I was always fascinated by maps. As a child, I loved opening an Atlas, finding a remote town or city, and imagining what life was like in that place. 

What did these streets and buildings look like? 

Exploring the world with my fingers was always a thrill. 

When Google Maps arrived on the scene in 2005, I was hooked. 

Google Maps is OK, I guess if you have an Internet connexion, you know what Google Maps is.

Having all those free maps in an easy to use interface. 

Technologically, it was a world wonder, a moon shot. It was like having your own personal pyramid in your pocket. 

But Google did not create maps for the fame, they were in it for the fortune. 

Data is the new oil. 

Google uses maps to collect data which they then own to earn money for their advertising business. 

We, the users provide the data, but Google owns it. 

A lot of people were imagining a universe where the data remained in the public domain. 

The open data movement crossed the technology of Google Maps with the principles of Wikipedia. The result, something called OpenStreetMaps. 

Today we’re talking to a geographer who’s taken the idea of OpenStreetMaps a step further he has created a tool called OpenLitterMaps. 

He wants people like you and me going around into the world and collecting images of litter using an app on a smartphone. 

When you do this, you are engaging in citizen science, also known as crowdsourcing. 

OpenLitterMaps is still a work in progress. There are still some essential aspects to be done, mainly making the data entry more fun and more rewarding. 

But for municipalities, for scientists, for anybody working for a clean environment, the opportunities are enormous. 

I was really looking forward to the interview with Sean and he displayed a level of passion and knowledge that really just knocked me over. 

Hi Sean, thanks for taking the time to talk today about your work and what you’re doing. I understand that you’re living in Cork, which is on the southern coast of Ireland looking out into the Celtic Sea and part of the Atlantic Ocean. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

Hey there. 

I was swimming in it yesterday. It’s pretty warm at the moment, warm for Irish standards anyway, but you know, we got a good swim. 


Maybe 10 minutes in and it’s more than enough and but yeah, we I always grew up around the sea and you know, even as a kid I was brought up swimming and so the the ocean that like living in Ireland it’s never too far away and so. 

You know we’re a small island nation and we were very lucky to be able to embrace some of that. 

A lot of Irish people would have, uh, a strong personal relationship with the ocean. So that was instilled at me from a very young age and that then was broadened when I went travelling and I discovered other types of ecosystems. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

Tell me 3 great things about Cork. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

OK, so Cork is a beautiful small city and you don’t need a car. That’s my bike and I I bike everywhere so I don’t have a car. I don’t need a car if I need something. I I jump on my bike and. 

Nothing is too far away, so it’s a it’s a very walkable cycle. Friendly city. Cork is also very hilly. It was formed by glaciers and so. 

And not probably not the most cycle friendly city unless you’re into serious uphill exercises, but there’s also a lot of downhills, so pretty convenient getting into the city. But coming home is a different story. 

And the people are just awesome. The people in Cork are what made it for me. And so I’m very happy to be based here at the moment. And uh, yeah, I love. I love my city. I love living here. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

OK, Cork just got onto my list of places to visit once this pandemic thing is over. 

I guess you spent a lot of your childhood in the water. 

When and where were you when you first confronted the issue of marine plastic litter? 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

I went travelling for a couple of years. 

I ended up working as a scuba diver at Divemaster in Thailand, in the tropics, and I did that for a couple of months and a few very important things happened there. 

I was introduced to the problem of ocean plastic first hand. 

Which until that point I heard about these islands of garbage floating in the ocean, but I never really. I never really saw it first hand, and that was 2011. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

What did you see exactly? 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

Huge piles of garbage would wash up on the beach regularly once or twice a week. 

And when we went diving. 

Divers were very well aware of this problem and they would be pulling out plastic bags and wrappers and beer bottles and all sorts of stuff from the coral from the sand. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

Sean left Thailand and returned to his hometown of Cork. 

He wanted to apply his passion for geography, but take in the area of litter pollution. He did not one, but two postgraduate degrees, to find out more about litter mapping. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

I did one in GIS in geographic information systems and remote sensing which is analysing geospatial data like points and polygons and roads and bridges and census data and all that kind. 

During the first masters I had already been studying litter mapping for a while for about five or six years, and I was introduced to a project called Open Street Maps. 

So Open Street Maps is this global open source database of the world streets and cities and roads and buildings, and I thought this is really cool. 

I wonder if there’s something similar for litter and plastic pollution, and so I thought, well, this definitely exists because it’s obviously very important, so I went looking online in 2013 and there was nothing available and so I had to create it myself. And then I thought, well, I really know very little about this topic. 

I probably need to do a second masters to get the expertise in the litter mapping literature. So I took out a loan, went back to Uni.

I did my second masters in coastal marine environments and there I studied all of the available litter mapping frameworks for 12 months. 

From the EU, the US, I read all the policy frameworks like the Marine Strategy Framework Directive. I was putting all these pieces together and I really found all of them to be largely inadequate. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

Perhaps you could explain what a litter map is. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

Sure, so we all we’re all familiar with maps. We all use Google Maps and when Google Earth was launched about 10 or 12 years ago, everyone

was a geographer because we would all zoom in on our home for the first time. Everyone was panning around their neighbourhood. It brought a whole new perspective to how we see our community. 

In the streets in the world,

so maps are very powerful because they reveal what we cannot normally see. And what many people have become normalised to and desensitised to and later maps are just another layer on top of that so you have in a map

 of the world.

It’s your base layer and what we do is we plot litter data on top of that as a layer so maps are full of layers and. 

And litter maps are very powerful tools, because if you’re walking down a street, there might be 100 cigarette butts on that street and we can map all of them individually. 

And when this is mapped on a street and you see 100 different points, it tells a really powerful story about litter of a plastic pollution. 

And that visualisation disrupts what people have become normalised to and desensitised to. 

So maps are these really highly complicated tools, but they’re very easy to consume. It doesn’t matter what language you speak or what alphabet you use or what culture you come from. 

Everybody can understand lots of points on a map means there’s a lot of activity in this area for whatever feature you’re trying to map, but. 

In terms of litter and those, that visualisation is very powerful because it removes the blindness that the people have become. 

So we’re working with community empowerment tool. 

 Pristine Ocean Podcast 

Just to summarise the story so far, Sean has created a system where people can act as data collectors. Sean refers to them as citizen scientists. 

Their citizen scientists use their own telephones to collect litter data, which is uploaded and made freely available. This data can be used for the good of the Community, especially to understand the dynamics of litter when and where and under what circumstances does litter occur. 

And in a transparent and open manner. 

When I used the app myself, I had some positive experiences but also experienced some problems. 

I can share with you my experience as a citizen scientist I. Yesterday I downloaded the open litter map app and went for a walk with my partner. 

Around the block down through the river and collected some data. 

And uploaded those, and I agree that it it changes your awareness. She said well, well won’t be looking at litter like this again, and I don’t expect that a lot of people will do it for over a period of time. Or maybe you can say something about your experience about. 

There you go. 

How committed people remain. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

So the problem at the moment is that the tools are still significantly underdeveloped. 

So at the moment you would have to be very interested in litter to use these apps. 

Because they take a lot of time, they take a lot of patience and you really have to be AFK. 

If it’s , it’s not yet a passive activity that you can do half asleep like Candy Crush, right? It’s? 

You would want to be very interested in litter and have a lot of patience to collect data at the moment now that that will change as the technology becomes more developed. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

And what if data collection was like Candy Crush? Seán wants to make data collection more like a game than a task. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

So our plan for gamification is we’re going to guide the user through the biology of life or the biodiversity of life. So you start as a ray of sunshine beaming into the ocean and that ray of sunshine. 

Feeds a singular cell, who feeds on that sponge, who grows stronger and be you know part of a  community and we’re going to tell a story about the environment and as the user scores points and levels up, we’re going to introduce them to the evolution of life.

Starting in the oceans and the impact that plastic has, then those species every step. 

The way. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

The other thing I then noticed about using the app was that it was fairly tedious to actually tag the data. 

But Seán’s got a plan to fix that as well. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

We’re also going to use the image data that people have submitted. 

To train a machine learning classifier. 

So right now, as we said, you’d want to be very interested in litter to use the app. 

And you have to take a lot of photos. Got to do a lot of manual tagging with your thumbs. You want to be very interested in later to use the app at the moment. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

Apart from the usability aspects of using the app, the second serious obstacle to the whole project is the issue of funding. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

Recently we got credits from Amazon Web Services too. 

They cover our costs online. 

But when they didn’t exist, it was costing me about €250 a month just to keep online, and I pay for that myself and I’m happy to pay it. 

And we we also have a small number of people who were crowdfunding. 

We ran 2 crowdfunding campaigns. 

Ran a Kickstarter in 2017. It was unsuccessful. Run a go fund me last year. I think it reached 2%. 

And but we also have a subscription service where people can sign up for 5 bucks a month. 

And we have a couple of people who are helping to cover that costs. It’s a huge help knowing that even seeing the email you know after working a few hours thinking. 

You know 70 grants rejected last week, but then you see an email. Someone signs up that they actually support you with microfinancing. That’s very powerful. 

How does that make you feel? 


And thankful. 

You know, I I had 74 grants rejected in a row until we got our first funding about a month ago. 

And a huge impact on my mental health. Not afraid to say it. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

OK, I hear it’s been quite a struggle, but congratulations on the funding. Can you tell us where the funding came from. 

Seán from OpenLitterMap 

And not from any traditional source. 

We got $50,000 in funding from one of these cryptocurrency projects called Cardano, and what’s interesting about this is they raised $1,000,000 in their cryptocurrency. 

The equivalent of and they raised that by putting a small tax on transactions. So every time a cryptocurrency transaction is made, a slice of that is put into this fund. 

And they raised $1,000,000 and the people who hold the token. It’s called Ada. 

They get to vote on how the money is spent, so there’s no bureaucrats. There’s no experts. 

Who are who have a specific story that they want or narrative that they want to be told or vested interests it’s democratised. 

And anyone holding this token can vault and over 285 million tokens, representing about half a billion dollars in value. 

Voted for the first time to finance the development of open source environmental monitoring. 

Pristine Ocean Podcast 

That was Sean Lynch from the OpenLitterMap. You can find out more about the OpenLitterMap in the show notes. 

Maybe you’re interested in supporting Sean and the OpenLitterMap project. There are maybe three ways you can do this. 

The 1st and easiest way is to download the app from your favourite App Store. Take a walk around the block and photograph and upload some litter. 2nd way is to shoot Seán an email, tell him what you think of the project. He’d be very happy to hear from you. 

And the third way would be to support the open litter map project financially. All the details are on the open litter map website. 

That’s it for this week. Thanks for listening to the Pristine Ocean Podcast, the podcast that talks to people around the world tackling the scourge of marine plastic litter. 



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