Cellphone apps and GIS: A response to data deficiency in Africa

Jun 15, 2017 | News

Plastic is a revolutionary material. Nowadays it’s found nearly everywhere; from the containers keeping our food fresh, to the clothes we wear, to everyday home and office supplies. However, over the last century, plastic waste has increasingly become an environmental hazard. Most plastic items are used for a very short amount of time before being thrown away (the average shopping bag is only used for 12 minutes) and once discarded take a very long time to decompose. Due to poor infrastructure and littering behaviour many of these plastic items find their way into our ecosystems and eventually, due to wind and rivers, our oceans.
In order to resolve the challenge that plastic pollution poses,we need to understand its origins and dispersal as well as empower those wanting to help clean the environment. The research team of the Sustainable Seas Trust (SST) is working towards gaining these understandings with three main projects, each with their own set of objectives.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is a software allowing researchers to map information to locations on Earth. In doing so, researchers are able to detect, quantify and visualise trends occurring across a landscape. SST’s GIS project seeks to examine the plastic pollution issue from an African perspective and aims to:
  1. estimate the amount of plastic waste generated on land,
  2. estimate the amount of plastic waste being mismanaged and thus able to pollute the environment,
  3. map the potential movement of plastic pollution from land into the sea,
  4. map the movement of plastic pollution within the ocean and
  5. predict the amount of plastic pollution being deposited along the coastline.
The resulting model will help critical decision makers formulate effective management schemes with the resources they have.While past research has focused on one or more of these objectives, this project is attempting to model the entire lifecycle of plastic pollution. Although this is a large project, SST is fortunate to have many experts in the field of waste research willing to assist with data and expertise, ensuring this project yields a model that will rival those already published.
In recent years cell phone applications have become a useful tool for citizen science. Depending on the design, cellphone apps can help promote awareness of environmental issues while allowing members of the public to acquire and submit useful data for scientific research. The Mobile Application project of the SST aims to exploit this growing trend. There are already many cellphone applications which allow the public to submit an inventory of the items collected during a clean-up. The institutes behind these mobile applications have generated massive databases which have been used to answer many scientific questions. However, these mobile applications have had limited exposureand utilisation in Africa. This project plans to:
  1. analyse existing mobile applications in context of resources in Africa (cellphone access, internet access and data usage),
  2. discuss with mobile application designersthe possible amalgamation of platforms (single multi-purpose platform),
  3. discuss with mobile application designers the design and content that best generates interest and awareness (visual layout, gamification options, educational material) and
  4. promote the use of a mobile applications in Africa.
So far, SST has had numerous discussions with many of designers of these existing mobile apps. Progress has been made in identifying a single multi-purpose platform. Meanwhile, a group of students from a local stewardship program are testing the strengths and weaknesses of these existing mobile applications in the field by conducting beach clean-ups, while at the same time gathering initial data.
A great challenge is to promote public awareness and education of the plastic issue while procuring new investors of resources and expertise. The Infographic project of SST aims to do just that by
  1. producing infographics of basic waste statistics of each coastal and island nation of Africa,
  2. producing an overall map of Africa showing the progress of the GIS project,
  3. mapping the basic results of the mobile application project and
  4. producing a visually appealing interactive online application for public access and stakeholder leverage.
African data is limited and thereis only some published research available providing basic statistics for Africa. At the same time, the GIS and Mobile Application projects are still in their infancy. Despite these limitations, the data we do have is enough to start designing infographics and assembling a basic platform which will later be further built on.
These projects are funded by The United Nations Environment.