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Marine Debris Cleanup: There’s an App for That

With over a million items logged, data provides a better picture of the marine debris problem


By Nancy D. Lamontagne


Jenna Jambeck uses the Marine Debris Tracker from aboard a research vessel. Photo courtesy of Jambeck.

Jenna Jambeck uses the Marine Debris Tracker from aboard a research vessel. Photo courtesy of Jambeck.

Solid waste litter is a major problem along coastlines and in rivers, streams, and oceans. Besides being an eyesore, this marine debris can also harm fish and other marine animals. A mobile application called the Marine Debris Tracker provides a way for both scientists and community members to log the location, type, and quantity of marine debris they clean up. This information is helping build a better picture of marine debris around the world, which could help inform strategies and policies to combat the problem.


Jenna R. Jambeck, PhD, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Georgia, led the team that designed the Marine Debris Tracker. Since the app’s 2011 launch, it has been downloaded 15,000 times and used to log more than a million items.


“That means over a million items didn’t make it into the ocean,” said Jambeck. “Because people have documented these items with the Marine Debris Tracker, we are able to understand the collective good accomplished by our users.”


The app was even featured as part of Apple’s 2014 World Wide Developer Conference “Apps We Can’t Live Without.”


Digital data collection

Jambeck was motivated to develop the mobile app after seeing piles of hand-written data cards containing information on marine debris that had been picked up during organized beach cleanups. She realized that these cards held valuable information and wanted to develop a way to electronically collect this data to avoid the time-consuming and error-prone process of manually entering it into databases.


With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, Jambeck and UGA computer scientist Kyle Johnsen, PhD, teamed up to create the Marine Debris Tracker as an easy-to-use tool that both scientists and community members could use to log litter they picked up.


The Marine Debris Tracker mobile app makes it easy for scientists and community members to log litter they pick up. Courtesy of Jambeck.

The Marine Debris Tracker mobile app makes it easy for scientists and community members to log litter they pick up. Courtesy of Jambeck.

“Data gathered with Marine Debris Tracker can be used to identify solvable issues or to inform policy changes,” said Jambeck. “The information can also provide maps of where debris were found, allowing people to visualize how much and the type of debris that has been found near their house, in a favorite park, or around a sea turtle habitat.”


Jambeck explained that if the mobile app showed that straws are often found in a certain area, nearby restaurants might be asked to start providing straws only when customers request them. If cigarette butts are providing to be a problem, a smoking ban or more cigarette receptacles could be considered for that area.


“We wanted it to be simple to use, so that people weren’t burdened by having to learn how to use it,” said Jambeck. “Once the app is downloaded and launched, it is very easy to quickly discern how to use the tool.”


Recently, the researchers upgraded the tracker by adding the option for users to track their walk and indicate items picked up along that route, rather than logging each item at its exact location.


A collective impact

Today, about 1,200 registered users consistently log debris with the mobile app. One of the top users is the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island. The center encourages people to help sea turtles by cleaning up the beaches and using the Marine Debris Tracker to log the debris. So far, people participating in this program have collectively logged 218,000 items. The center is using this information to better understand how marine debris is impacting turtles on the island by looking for areas where turtle activity and debris overlap.


The app also makes it possible for citizens who aren’t part of an organized clean-up to contribute data. One of the top individuals using the app logs items a few times a week and has picked up almost 84,000 items over four years. Even though this person lives in Omaha, Nebraska, far away from any ocean, debris in this area could have otherwise traveled down rivers and eventually reached the ocean.


“Even people who don’t live on the coast can use the Marine Debris Tracker and have a positive impact on our oceans,” said Jambeck. “A few choices a week can have big effects over time.”


A tool for scientists

In addition to being easy for lay people to use, Marine Debris Tracker is also designed to give scientists the tools they need. For example, it can be used offline, which allows researchers in remote locations to log data and upload the data once they are back within mobile signal range. This feature made it possible for Jambeck to use the app to log debris from aboard a research vessel in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.


Users can also choose to use one of several specific marine debris lists, such as ones created by NOAA or the Ocean Conservancy. Lists are also available in Spanish and Albanian. Once the user picks a default, it will appear every time the app is opened.


It was very important to Jambeck that users of the app have the ability to download all of the data they entered, which they can do now in the form of spreadsheet. “As a scientist or even as a lay person using tools or looking at data online, I was always disappointed that I couldn’t get access to raw data,” she said. “We would like to expand the openness and usability of the data by allowing someone to choose an area and look at the top items found there, for example.”


Jambeck’s research team is now working to analyze the data collected with the app to examine the differences and similarities in marine debris among the various NOAA regions in the United States.


Related links:

Citizen-Based Litter and Marine Debris Data Collection and Mapping

Apps We Can’t Live Without – WWDC 2014 video


Nancy D. Lamontagne is a contributing writer for Creative Science Writing and the Thriving Earth Exchange.