The History (and future) of OpenLitterMap

OpenLitterMap is a citizen science platform that empowers anyone to map and share data on plastic pollution anywhere. So far, it has been built entirely by 1 person. This is his story.

Back in 2006, I finished secondary / high-school. That summer, we got connected to the internet at home. This was a remarkable turning point because instead of being bored to tears by mundane content imposed on us through an archaic education system, I could finally begin learning for myself.

I always wanted to learn how to use a computer (to build games, websites and collaborate on different projects), but in my youth I was too distracted, particularly by online games such as Counter Strike, to find the motivation to get started. Although I don’t have the time to game anymore, this experience would have a remarkable impact on the development of OpenLitterMap later. (In honour of my counter-strike days, the #LitterWorldCup has a Top15 and there are other hidden gems on the horizon).

Once online, my appetite for knowledge started to grow. I didn’t have much interest in school, but after developing a thirst for knowledge I decided I would repeat final year and get the points to go to college. During that year I had a wonderful Geography teacher (Iain from the UK) who inspired me to study Geography in University.

In 2009 I started a Bachelor of Arts in Geography and Economics. In hindsight I should have studied computer science but the 2 subjects I choose married well and I don’t think I had strong enough foundations for computer science back then much thanks to our outdated education system that never once considered teaching us how to code or make a map. I remember the day in first year Geography when we were introduced to GIS and I was hooked right away. To me, it looked like a computer game using real-world data. My interest shifted from digital games to digital science and now these are starting to complement each other. I knew that I would have to master this technology and craft a career using real-world data.

Soon after being introduced to GIS, we were told that we would have the option to write a dissertation in 3rd year so I began thinking about what I could apply GIS to. Near our home there is an area used for illegal dumping and I thought wouldn’t it be wonderful if I could put that on a map, communicate it, and get it fixed.

Once I started thinking about this, I quickly realised there was “micro-litter” everywhere and I wondered about how we could capture such data with a GPS as we didn’t all have fancy iPhones back then (2009). As I didn’t have the technical competency to actually use GIS yet, I ended up writing a dissertation on walkability which included theorising about litter-mapping. I found that people closer to the city tended to trust each other a bit more (they would even leave keys in the door and had less burglaries) as they had more daily interactions. People closer to the city are typically less car-dependent and they saw each other a lot more on a daily basis which leads to an increase in social capital. But litter was still on my mind, which is hard to ignore once you realize its absolutely everywhere.

In 2011, after submitting my dissertation and finishing my last exam I was on the next plane out which I would not return from for about 2-years. I should add that I worked 3 nights a week all through college, never got a grant or a handout from a single parent family with 5 dependents. In this time abroad I worked and traveled across the US and Australia where I saved up enough money to try scuba diving in Koh Tao, Thailand. Although I only planned to stay here for a week or 2, I got hooked and I ended up staying there, training up to divemaster and diving every day until my money ran out. This was a tremendously positive experience that I think everyone should have the chance to pursue. I started to learn a lot more about the threats facing our oceans. I heard how the biodiversity of the island has rapidly deteriorated since it became a popular tourist destination. Large piles of rubbish would regularly wash up on the beach presumably from Bangkok and beach cleaning was a regular occurrence, above and below the water.

In 2013 money was running low meaning it was time to go home. Bursting with motivation to master and do something innovative with GIS, I applied to do a Masters of Science in GIS and Remote Sensing which I was accepted into. In semester 1 our class was asked to do a presentation on some element of the industry that was of interest and naturally enough I choose citizen science as I saw the potential of highly motivated and largely untapped backpacker and diver potential. We were also introduced to OpenStreetMap which we learned is the largest and most comprehensive map and open database of the world, which has been crowdsourced by an increasing 2-million volunteers. And most importantly, it’s all available as open data. Nice.

Walking home one day, I had my phone in my hand and I realized there was no superior data collection experience that could empower society to map and share data. Why open data? Because this is a global emergency and there is no way I could do all of this research by myself. We need to democratize access to data and build a research community like OpenStreetMap around this new, emerging and largely unexplored field of geographic information science. Just like that, walking home from a lecture looking at a piece of litter with my phone in my hand, the idea for OpenLitterMap was born.

I wanted to do my masters dissertation on litter-mapping but my professor wouldn’t allow it so I ended up doing something on the remote sensing of phytoplankton resources from ocean colour satellites instead. I was starting to become familiar with the GIS and RS technology, but I still needed a lot more theoretical and domain expertise to contextualize these huge problems and offer realistic solutions before I could even begin to code, which hadn’t even occurred to me yet.

Halfway through the M.Sc. in GIS, a second M.Sc. popped up in Coastal & Marine Environments. I was set to finish college debt free, but feeling the pressure of plastic pollution (which very few people were talking about back then) I thought, if I take a loan out for this second masters, I would become an expert in this field, and society would support OpenLitterMap because open citizen science data is really important, right?

So, thinking society would get my back for pioneering open citizen science data on this global epidemic or maybe a grant or some billionaire might actually think this is important or something, I applied to do a second masters and took out a loan of €20,000 once I got accepted which I am still paying back today. I spent the next year studying the perils (and solutions) of our environment in depth and I studying plastic pollution extensively for the year, I developed the OpenLitterMap methodology.

Before starting that second M.Sc., I applied to participate at the Vespucci Institute, a summer school exploring and pioneering research in geographic information science. I shared my enthusiasm for citizen science and I was accepted, where I met leading experts from across the world who inspired me. I met software developers for the first time and for the first time I thought, maybe I could make an app?

A year later, after finishing the second intensive masters I finally found the time to begin teaching myself how to code. But it would not be until 6-months later in January 2016 when I could really get stuck in. After college I was selected out of 400 applicants to train for 5-weeks on-board the R.V. Polarstern with 3-dozen other remarkable emerging scientists in biological oceanography along the north-south Atlantic transect from Bremerhaven, Germany to Cape Town in South Africa which exacerbated my inspiration and commitment to solving our global challenges, of which there are many.

Once I got home from the expedition in December 2015 I was introduced to Ethereum. I had already been learning about the bitcoin ecosystem for a while, so I was ready to learn about the implications of smart contracts and tokenisation. I had already completed the OpenLitterMap methodology and I was in search of a reward to give people for doing citizen science and the day I read “Create your own token” on the Ethereum website, the idea for Littercoin was born.

In January 2015 I began messing around with XCode for iOS and hacking around with storyboards. I threw a basic MVP together and got as far as authentication when I had to ask for help as I had no idea what I was doing. A friend of mine studying computer science introduced me to Laravel — a PHP framework for building web-applications. I had no idea what a PHP framework was but it sounded cool and the website looked nice. Love beautiful code? Sign me up.

I did some research and —right away — wow. I couldn’t believe that I was only being introduced to this now. What was I doing all my life? Why did nobody teach me this? What the hell did I spent years learning about in school? How to read and write? Come on. I found my calling — but I also realised how much catching up I would have to do if I wanted to make this work.

Over the next 6-months I ate, drank, slept and did little else besides inhale knowledge about Laravel at any given opportunity. Obsession is an understatement. Social relationships, mental and personal health, everything was put to one side until I could develop the technical competency to get a handle on this framework and get OpenLitterMap into production. There is 1,000 tonnes of plastic estimated to be going into the ocean every hour and when you realize what open data means for that, you can’t just sit around and pretend there is nothing you can do. I would also learn JavaScript, Vue, several CSS frameworks, DevOps, nginx, server management, queues, redis/nosql, git, etc. After 6-months of binging on udemy and laracasts, I finally had the confidence to start building my own applications. After another 6-months, on the 15th of April 2017 OpenLitterMap.com was finally in production. You can see a video detailing the first release of the project here.

By June 2017, a few bugs had been fixed and I had time to think about the next aspect. I wanted Littercoin to be the first token rewarded for doing citizen science, so after a few days trial and error I finally managed to download the entire Ethereum blockchain on a dodgy external HD, learn how to code Solidity and launch Littercoin. (Claim to fame, I actually fixed a small bug in the Ethereum code in the process which was my first open source contribution). I wanted to create a token that was the complete opposite of all of the ICO scams. No ICO, no exchanges, none of that crap. Just a token rewarded to a person for sharing data on plastic pollution and used peer to peer. Pretty much what bitcoin was meant to be, except the “proof of work” algorithm was people generating open data to advance unrestricted science on pollution. Users of OpenLitterMap can now submit their Ethereum Wallet ID to OpenLitterMap and in lieu of smart contracts, I manually send users any tokens they are “owed” which users receive for submitting 100 images successfully in a row. Smart contracts and more are in development, which I will move all 10-million Littercoin into, subject to improvements and feedback, which you can read on this whitepaper. Surely the blockchain community would support such an initiative, I thought.

2-years later, OpenLitterMap is still in development and it’s only about 5% where I want it to be. Over 40 grants have rejected my proposal including National Geographic who have several calls to democratize science and reduce ocean plastic, The Pineapple Fund, who gave away about €50 million in bitcoin to various projects including OpenStreetMap and the Sustainable Oceans Alliance — who also rejected to support the development of OpenLitterMap and many more. I ran a kickstarter which 3 people signed up for including myself. I introduced crowdfunding into OpenLitterMap so users don’t have to give 10–15% of their money to gofundme or kickstarter. So far only about 70 people have joined the crowdfunding, which is not exactly enough to make a video or work part-time but it does keep me from losing my mind altogether. So much for thinking society would get my back.

In June 2018, I published my first paper, which you can read here:

What’s next for OpenLitterMap? v1.0 of the mobile app for iOS and Android is nearly ready which I am actually very pleased with.

After that, I have some software updates in mind but who knows what will happen. OpenLitterMap data is available as open data and what’s next is for anyone interested in pioneering open science on plastic pollution to find out.

If you like my work, or maybe you think open and unrestricted access to citizen science data on plastic pollution is important, why not create open data or join the crowdfunding so we can speed up and maintain the development of OpenLitterMap?

Lots of good news is on the horizon but I work full-time as a developer (where I get paid to become a better developer which is pretty cool) but after staring at a screen for 35–40+ hours a week I can only dedicate my eyes so many hours a week to advancing unrestricted access to citizen science data on pollution. If more people thought this was important, we could build some really cool technology.

We are on the cusp of a global scientific and a geospatial renaissance. Social media empowered us to share text, videos and images but now its time for social media 2.0 that empowers us not only to map — but more importantly, to share data.

I hope you will join us at OpenLitterMap and help kick start the Open Pollution Revolution.

Happy mapping

Seán @ OpenLitterMap.

PS — more projects on the way.

An open, interactive and accessible database of the world’s litter and plastic pollution