Using Citizen-Generated Data to Tackle Marine Pollution

At a glance




2020 – 2021 (Phase 1); 2022-2023 (Phase 2)


Sustainable Development Solutions Network Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (SDSN TReNDS), International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), Ghana Statistical Service (GSS), Ghana Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Smart Nature Freak Youth Volunteers Foundation, Plastic Punch, UN Environment Programme, The Wilson Center, Earth Challenge 2020, Ocean Conservancy International Coastal Cleanup, University of the Aegean


Marine Litter, Beach Litter, Plastics, Oceans, SDGs, SDG Monitoring, Citizen Science, Citizen-generated Data, SDG 14, Drone Data, Artificial Intelligence, AI 


Government Data, Open Data


SDG #14

The Challenge

An estimated 11 million tons of plastic waste leaks into the ocean annually. Many countries around the world, including Ghana, are heavily affected by the marine plastic litter problem. However, they lack official data and resources to effectively monitor the extent of marine plastics. Such data could inform national and global policies to address this problem and build public awareness of issues related to the use of plastics.

The Approach

Ghana has an active community of citizen scientists that volunteer to clean beaches. They contribute significantly to collecting data on marine litter: volunteers log their plastic collections on paper data cards or an app that feeds into a comprehensive global database. Through a multi-stakeholder coalition, this project worked to integrate this data into the country’s official statistics. This will help Ghanaian authorities to better address the problem of marine litter.

Citizen science, broadly defined, is public participation in scientific research and knowledge production, either led by communities or academic organizations. In this context, we use citizen science as an umbrella term to describe various citizen engagement activities in the production of knowledge, from crowdsourcing to citizen-generated data or from community-based monitoring to volunteered geographic information. 

The Benefits

Before the start of this project, Ghana lacked any official data related to marine plastics; the vastness of the oceans make data collection challenging and costly throughout the world. Citizen science data has enabled Ghana to produce more accurate, cost-effective and timely data on marine litter. 

Ghana is one of the first countries to report on the SDG indicator 14.1.1b (density of marine plastic debris) and the first country to use citizen science approaches for that purpose. This project was also successful in bringing together key stakeholders to harmonize approaches and build confidence in the people and methods that produce data for official statistics. It has helped to raise awareness of citizen science and the Sustainable Development Goals in Ghana, as well as the importance of innovative data sources and citizen science to address data and policy gaps. It has provided the impetus for the Environmental Protection Agency to incorporate this evidence into their environmental protection plans.



tons of plastic waste leaks into the ocean annually.


The context

Marine litter continues to inflict significant damage on Africa’s coastlines. The issue is particularly salient in Ghana, which generates approximately 840,000 million tons of plastics annually. Moreover, per capita plastic consumption is increasing by 3.4% per annum. In Ghana, only a small portion of plastic waste is re-used and recycled. Plastics often end up in uncontrolled landfills and later washed into Ghana’s beaches, threatening marine life and the livelihood of its citizens, as well as harming the tourism and fishing industries.

Fortunately, the country is working towards addressing this issue. In October 2019, Ghana became the first African nation to join the Global Plastic Action Partnership. Ghana’s President has pledged to achieve zero leakage of plastic waste into oceans and waterways. Yet the country had no official data available for marine litter. 

Coupled with the growing political will for action on plastic pollution, Ghana’s laws also helped to lay the groundwork for the use of new data methods. In 2019, Ghana’s Government passed the Statistical Service Act, which mandates the Ghana Statistical Service (GSS) to include new sources of data when producing official statistics. Research demonstrating that citizen-generated data was already contributing to or could contribute to the monitoring of 33% of the indicators attached to the SDGs also helped to encourage this approach. 

Mobilizing the Citizen Science Coalition

Beginning in April 2020, the GSS, SDSN TReNDS and IIASA partnered with a number of key stakeholders to understand the feasibility of using citizen science data generated by citizen scientists and their networks in Ghana to officially monitor and report on SDG 14.1.1b as part of the ‘Citizen Science for the SDGs in Ghana’ (CS4SDGs) project. Alongside the GSS, SDSN TReNDS and IIASA, the core partners included: The Ghana Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the Earth Challenge 2020, the Wilson Center, the International Coastal Cleanup (ICC) by Ocean Conservancy and the Smart Nature Freak Youth Volunteers Foundation (SNFYVF).

The primary objective of the project was to harness existing citizen science initiatives in Ghana to address the data gaps and policy needs on marine litter. By bringing together the key stakeholders to build partnerships, it is possible to improve and align methodologies and apply common standards to data collection. This in turn leads to greater monitoring efficiency and reporting of marine litter.  

Each partner brought unique value and skills to the project. IIASA and SDSN TReNDS provided the knowledge and expertise in citizen science and the SDGs; the GSS and the Ghana EPA served as country project leads; the ICC and the Wilson Center provided the methodology; UNEP acted as the custodian agency for indicator 14.1.1b and supported the project throughout the process; and SNFYVF collected the data.

Implementation steps

As part of the project, a three-phase data validation process was implemented. In the first phase, the aim was to understand the global methodology for the SDG 14.1.1b indicator. The next step was to identify relevant existing citizen science data that could be leveraged for SDG reporting and policy decisions. 

Subsequently, the coalition compiled this data ready for validation. The Ocean Conservancy TIDES database provided a single point of access for data from each of the partners. At this stage, the group brought the key stakeholders together for a series of workshops to validate the data, review reporting requirements, protocols and methodologies. A policy roundtable was also held with the GSS that brought together the key ministries and government agencies in Ghana, local academics, citizen science groups, civil society organizations, and other relevant stakeholders to explore national priorities and policy needs. This roundtable was critical for ensuring political buy-in and raising awareness of citizen science in Ghana.

Once the validation process was completed, the data were then integrated into official statistics with support from the GSS and the Ghana Environmental Protection Agency. Following this, data relating to the indicator were communicated to UNEP for official reporting to the SDG Global Database. 

Mapping marine litter hotspots

Building on these efforts, the coalition continues to work together to address data gaps for policy planning. In this next phase, the group is exploring the feasibility of using drone data, citizen science and Artificial Intelligence (AI) approaches to identify marine litter “hotspots” along Ghana’s coastline. This information will be used to better understand the trajectory of marine litter waste across the country which can inform the country’s coastal and marine management policies and Ghana’s Voluntary National Review of progress towards the SDGs.

How can better data contribute to better policy? 

Quality and timely data are critical for improving the governments’ ability to make better decisions that can reduce plastic waste and manage plastic waste sustainably. 

Citizen science approaches are a cost-effective mechanism in comparison to traditional sources of data, as people are volunteering their time and knowledge to clean up the beaches and to collect the data. They are also helping to increase local community awareness around the issue of plastics waste and foster government action and consensus on mitigating marine litter.

This project has demonstrated the value of integrating new data into official government data sources and contributed to a more conducive environment within Ghana for broader forms of data monitoring for policy design. The GSS is now more eager to use citizen-generated data to support the monitoring of other national and sub-national issues, including public financial management and waste management. This helped the GSS in supporting national ministries’ priorities and policy planning. 

Where do we go from here?

The use of citizen science data from this project is aiding the formulation of a forthcoming Integrated Coastal and Marine Management Policy produced by government. The policy seeks to develop spatial planning to ensure the reduction of the impact of human activities on marine resources and to establish marine protected areas in Ghana. With more granular and accurate data on marine litter, the Ministry of Environment can better tailor their policies to reach the most vulnerable and impacted areas in the country.

At this stage of the project, the partners are focusing on configuring multiple data sources and methodologies, including citizen science data, AI and drone imagery. A technical report and guidance document will be published in autumn 2023 that will assess the feasibility of combining these data sources to produce accurate plastic litter density maps for Ghana and examine the possibility of replicating and upscaling this approach in other countries. 

Case Downloads

Mapping citizen science contributions to the UN sustainable development goals

Further ressources

Citizen science tackles plastics in Ghana
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