Data Management for Clean Waterways

Our team worked with Anacostia Riverkeeper leadership to modernize their Clean Waterways program data management by building a custom data model and migrate existing data from a suite of unassociated spreadsheets into a unified, cloud-accessible database.
Digital Services
June 8, 2023
Data Management for Clean Waterways

Trash enters waterways. Volunteers mobilize to collect it; infrastructure is installed to capture it. Legislation is passed and behaviors are changed to reduce it. How can data management also help reduce trash?

This may not feel like a technology problem, but when it comes to tracking the progress of remediating trash in the Anacostia and supporting both the District of Columbia and Maryland with meeting trash total maximum daily load ( TMDL) limits, having a modern data management process becomes critical in understanding the breadth of the issue and the efficacy of intervention efforts. 

Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK) has managed watershed-wide trash clean-up initiatives for over a decade. Their program staff and active volunteer network constitute one of the largest cohesive efforts to voluntarily remove litter and bulk trash items throughout the Anacostia Watershed. Removing trash and collecting relevant statistics are part of their daily business. The more accurate data they can collect about the amount, type, and location of trash, can help them connect with funders, volunteers, and policy-makers who are the critical decision-makers in choosing actions with long-term improvements at reducing the amount of trash entering our waterways.

“Since the start of our Clean Waterways program in 2012, Anacostia Riverkeeper has engaged over 8,600 volunteers and collected over 165,000 pounds of trash from the Anacostia watershed. The program has continued to grow steadily and in 2023 we’re on track to break our volunteer record. From January – May 2023, we have had 981 volunteers, already surpassing 2022’s total volunteer count by over 200 participants,” explains Quinn Molner, ARK’s Director of Operations. 

Photo via Anacostia Riverkeeper.

“Anacostia Riverkeeper represents a model organization for the quality and efficiency in how they deploy and manage their programs.  We partnered with ARK to bolster their data collection efforts and ease the burden of complicated data management so they can focus on what they do best.  Our team deployed a set of integration recipes that connected across their organization to make visualization, reporting, and record-keeping easy. This is resulting in data that adopt FAIR data principles and can be used to inform topics that directly impact watershed residents such as how the DC and MD are tracking toward attainment of water quality standards for trash.” explains John Dawes, Executive Director at The Commons. “Documenting trash composition from voluntary cleanups helps everyone understand the scale and type of environmental issue we are collectively trying to solve and what actions can be taken to inform the general public as well as mitigate the problem in the future. ”

The Commons team worked with ARK leadership to build a custom data model and migrate existing data from a suite of unassociated spreadsheets into a unified, cloud-accessible database. Once the data model and data were configured, our team built a series of API integrations to connect the data to live updating feature services in ArcGIS Online. By making these critical connections, our team worked to deploy a live-updating dashboard showing cumulative statistics of trash collected program-wide and relative to each volunteer cleanup event. Going forward ARK can leverage these live feature services to spin up any number of maps, analytics, and information products that tell the story of how they are combatting the trash problem in the Anacostia Watershed.

The outcomes of this project will serve  ARK’s litter reduction program and constituents for years to come, with added value built over time as they invest energy into adopting the data management strategies and building out their records with each cleanup event. 

Intersection of Policy and Our Technology

The Anacostia River is one of only three rivers in the United States that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has deemed “impaired by trash”. This declaration means that the EPA has imposed a total maximum daily load, or TMDL, for the river. In order to meet the TMDL,  Anacostia Riverkeeper leads community-based efforts to mitigate trash entering the waterway in Washington, DC, and Maryland. Staff work with innovative technology, Bandalong litter traps, and Seabins, as well as trained volunteers to move towards a trash-free Anacostia. 

ARK began intentionally collecting trash data in 2015 to understand how much their programs collected, where trash was collected, and how much trash was collected. Unfortunately, each year of programming brought new information, questions, and requirements from funders. Before long, the data collected each year became incomparable across programs and years. Rolling up and analyzing the data took too much desk time for minimal analytical results. 

“This year, we have also expanded Clean Waterways into Montgomery County, successfully reaching our watershed’s Hispanic community. Volunteer trash cleanups are an effective but reactionary solution to the trash pollution in the Anacostia River watershed but, by combining these with advocacy initiatives to our local governments, we work to stop trash pollution from all angles,” shared Molner.

When ARK came to The Commons asking if we could help modernize their data management strategy, we saw an incredible opportunity to tweak their current workflow for results that could scale. We started by conducting two listening sessions where we learned more about the current data collection and management process as well as the goals for how they needed and wanted to use the collected data. 

After we had the information about goals and capacity, we identified a suite of software-as-a-service options or “stack” that we could configure and connect together to make data management, analysis, and visualization sharing a streamlined rather than cumbersome process. After we configured the data model for ARK we set up an integration to ArcGIS and deployed two feature services that receive directly from the data management tool. As ARK interacts with their data management system our core integrations watch for changes and the feature service is automatically updated within seconds, removing the need to swap out versions of the data manually as new sites or new event data is added. 

For this project, our team and ARK chose to create an analytical dashboard application powered by trash cleanup data. A map anchors the web map viewer and invites users to navigate to different trash cleanup locations. As the user selects a cleanup location or event, the application automatically filters the associated dashboard analytics to present the latest stats for the selection of interest such as the number of volunteers, types of trash collected, and total pounds of trash removed. Users can further drill down by filtering for a given date range or year.  

You can explore all event data on the online dashboard.

Next Steps

By using AirTable as the backend data manager, The Commons can fully relinquish control of the project and hand data management over to the ARK team. Going forward, ARK will continue to add new trash clean-up sites, import new data, and see changes to their existing online dashboard thanks to the Commons’ integration suite that supports live syncing between AirTable and ArcGIS Online.

AirTable allows users to build and manage multiple data models, which gives the ARK team flexibility to build out more of their data management needs in a single system going forward. Similarly, The Commons can enable ARK to create additional Feature Services synchronized with new data models established in AirTable. This is a highly flexible recipe that can work with nearly any data model, regardless of the theme of the data in question. We see this approach being a highly effective solve for any form of in-situ data collection and aim to support our constituency widely with education and implementation for their discrete programmatic needs.

ARK has a lot of options for what to do next with their data, a great outcome of adopting FAIR data standards, which optimizes the reuse of data. For example, the trash data feature service can be used in other ESRI products or open frameworks to build a story map or custom application to meet a single funder's needs. Our approach is anchored in the philosophy of publishing data once to serve many uses. Data managed in the AirTable base can also be formatted and shipped to other repositories or applications if those endpoints have the necessary APIs. If adopted, this method can help further reduce desk time on data reconfiguration and conversion to meet multiple end-use needs. In a world where a lot of work is funded through grants with reporting and data-sharing requirements, this functionality will increase the amount of information that can be shared from a single system, maximizing the reusability of the data by end users. 

The Commons is excited to keep working with ARK and other groups that are looking to modernize their data management systems through the adoption of readily used software-as-a-service offerings and stitching them together with our core integrations. “Three years ago, our team would have had to fulfill ARK’s request with a custom build and high price tag. With the advent of low code (or as we like to say: “more meaningful code”) approaches, our team can more quickly create solutions that meet the needs of our clients in a fraction of the time,” explained Dawes. “We can get more groups hosting and sharing data in ways that increase efficiency, and autonomy, and improves the use of community-based data in environmental decision-making. What we created for ARK’s Clean Waterways programs can be adapted for other water quality monitoring and trash clean-up programs. If groups want to make the leap, we are ready to build the bridges.”