How can open data mapping help deal with the global litter crisis?

12 Feb 2019

Image: © MaciejBledowski/

Séan Lynch wants people to use OpenLitterMap to tackle pollution in novel ways.

Cork-born entrepreneur Séan Lynch is passionate about citizen science, open data and tackling the unsightly and dangerous problem of litter that plagues the environment around us.

These three interests have converged in his creation of OpenLitterMap, a web app that aims to build the world’s most extensive database of litter, maintained by citizen scientists. He spoke to about educating and empowering society to tackle litter in more effective ways.

What made you want to pursue OpenLitterMap as a project?

Plastic pollution is everywhere and I am absolutely sick of having to look at it every minute of the day, no matter where I go. It’s depressing – and so easily fixed. We hear about litter in the deepest parts of the ocean and on these once beautiful remote islands but, really, if you want to experience plastic pollution all you have to do is walk outside.

Walking to University College Cork every day around 2009 where I studied geography, I was asked to write a dissertation. I was thinking about what might be important for society and, when I opened my eyes, I noticed there was litter everywhere.

Litter has become ‘normal’ and many people have become desensitised to it. Cigarette butts and everything else have become part of life, not worth the blink of an eye. To change people’s perception and behaviour, maps and data can become the most powerful tools in our arsenal as geospatial data transcends language.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t read or write – you can understand a cloud of points on a map. Consider when Google Maps was released; the first thing many people did was look at where they lived. If we could map and communicate all of the litter around people’s homes, this can tell a very powerful story and this has the potential to change behaviour.

A map of the world featuring circles denoting how much litter has been mapped in certain areas. Part of OpenLitterMap.

A visualisation of global litter mapping from OpenLitterMap. Image: OpenLitterMap

Can you explain the benefits of an open data model, particularly in relation to a project like this?

Open data is simply data, like an Excel spreadsheet, but anyone can download the data, for free, and use it for any purpose, without permission. Open data is not just free to download but comes with complete freedom of use, and this is essential to advance and democratise not just science, but the production of knowledge.

In contrast, closed data is also data that might be visible on a map, but nobody can download or access the raw data. Therefore, we cannot use closed data, making that data and the effort taken to collect it largely redundant. Since closed data cannot be used, it stifles research, innovation, transparency, solutions, advocacy, accountability and results.

Open data can be downloaded for free but since it has freedom of use, it can also be used for any purpose, including commercial. For example, many companies provide mapping services and consultancy based off the OpenStreetMap platform (open data), which is the most comprehensive map of the world ever made by about 2m volunteers, and is far more detailed and comprehensive (and accessible) than other proprietary maps.

In contrast, Google Maps is a popular brand but if you want to do some research with Google Maps data, or use the data for commercial purposes, the data is expensive to access and its use comes with a restrictive licence.

In terms of plastic pollution, many data-logging apps don’t share their data as open data because of the complete lack of support currently available for open data. Other apps’ business model is to try and sell your data to governments and corporations.

If governments wanted to map product pollution and communicate how polluted their jurisdictions are because of the pollution caused by economic activity, they would have already done so. But the fact that they are not interested in mapping litter in an open and accessible way is exactly why OpenLitterMap needs to be open data.

What is the ideal outcome for the project?

Hopefully soon, society will understand that the development of this technology is important. When that happens, we are going to eradicate plastic pollution, save local authorities and taxpayers millions in annual revenue, and save the environment and our future generations from trillions in additional damages.

Do you think the growing public interest in managing plastic pollution could see wider adoption of OpenLitterMap?

Yes. Very few people were talking about this between the 1970s – when plastic pollution was first recognised to have a global distribution in the oceans – and now, because access to knowledge was restricted.

With the rise of social media and documentaries, the ‘Blue Planet effect’ is kicking in. More and more people are realising that plastic pollution is not just bad for the environment but has been a global epidemic for decades.

Can you tell us a bit about the Littercoin element of the project?

OpenLitterMap applies blockchain proof-of-work mining principles to citizen science for the first time and rewards users with Littercoin for producing geographic information. Littercoin is permissionless, therefore anyone can use it for any purpose at their own discretion.

When people can get paid to map litter, I think we will see a situation where we can achieve global open datasets in minutes.

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects