Litter mapping is a new field of citizen science and blockchain rewards offer a whole new paradigm

Nowadays, and especially in big cities, litter is everywhere. We often don't even notice it anymore. However, if we started noticing it again, and started putting it into a database, what could that data tell us about a certain area and the kind of litter that can be found there? Would there be only benefits, or are there any risks associated with that kind of citizen science? Seán Lynch elaborates on these questions in his new study on Litter Mapping, published in Open Geospatial Data, Software and Standards.

Every single step is usually how I experience plastic pollution. While dropping a cigarette butt on an already littered city might not seem like a big deal, this is a global epidemic. For many, litter has always been normal. Cigarette butts and everything else have become a part of life not worth the blink of an eye. Litter is found in the deepest parts of the ocean, the most remote polar seas and probably—right outside your door. We see it every day, but where does it go? How does it get there? And at what cost?

The scientific method has been carefully constructed around sampling. However, in some domains, traditional sampling is increasingly less effective as 100s of millions of people are now equipped with incredibly powerful geospatial data collectors. With citizen science, we can reveal and communicate plastic pollution in new and informative ways. This has the potential to redefine our relationship with not just litter, but potentially—contemporary throwaway consumerism.

Anybody have a map?

But who should be allowed to access the data? Should all of the data be open, or some of it, or none? Depending on your answer, who will pay for hosting your data? Litter can tell us an important story about socio-economic activity, location characterisation, social factors, deprivation, the allocation or lack of resources, and changes in human behavior. But not everyone might want this story told.

Over the last 2 years a colleague and I have been mapping littered prescription based medication in Dublin. We believe we can pick up on trends before social services. We have also been mapping other types of drug-related paraphernalia to try and evaluate what impact Ireland’s first Medically Supervised Injection Facility will have on the spatial distribution of drug-related litter.

Should the people walking these streets have a right to geospatial information to know what lies beneath their feet? But what if such maps will lead to the increased stigmatization of already marginalized communities? Litter mapping has profound unanswered ethical questions. (Note—this data on drug-related litter is not currently open and is being conducted on a sibling site at druglitter.info, which is also lacking in resources).

Open citizen science or closed litter map?

Litter mapping is a new and largely unexplored field of Geographical Information Science. There are an increasing number of providers; however because of the lack of support, many do not make their data available. Also, many citizens do not question the openness or quality of the data they are creating.

OpenLitterMap was created out of necessity to allow anyone to gain access to open citizen science data of the highest possibly quality for free. This democratizes who can participate in the research, which can lead to innovation and transparent results.

Although open data has incredible potential for research, society, the environment and good governance—open data does not generate the revenue that is necessary to support itself. Several supports have been applied for, all of which so far were rejected. Does anyone think supporting open data on plastic pollution is important? Or is ClosedLitterMap with a paywall for data access a more realistic paradigm?

OpenLitterMap also makes the mapping of brands possible, however users must drill down to the City layer to access the weighted hexagonal grid as browsers are unable to render these maps at larger scales.

How many littercoins do you have?

If we want to collect data en masse what we really need is an incentive. That is why OpenLitterMap applies blockchain mining principles to citizen science for the first time and rewards users with crypto-tokens Littercoin for doing the work. This has the potential to incentivize the most rapid production of crowdsourced geospatial data the world has ever seen. We could probably get a good picture of many parts of the world’s litter in as little as 15 minutes if people were incentivized enough to do it.

Paying people to pick up litter is not new and it makes economic sense to do so as the cost of plastic pollution is significantly greater than the cost of intervention. This might not be the future of just citizen science but maybe, universal basic income?


Note—All users at OpenLitterMap.com are anonymous by default. Children under the age of 13 are not allowed to upload to OpenLitterMap. Children aged 13-17 may contribute to OpenLitterMap with parental/guardian supervision but anyone concerned about their privacy should keep the default anonymous settings and not include shadows, limbs, clothing etc in geotagged pictures. Litter picking and litter mapping are family friendly activities, however users should only take photos of litter not include photos of children championing litter hauls as the photos will be mapped. Users may include photos of their dogs and include them in the new (forthcoming) Trash Dog category.

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