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  • Rachel Layko, College of William & Mary

Citizen Science GIS Program

Hi, my name is Rachel Layko, and I am a student at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. This past summer I participated in the Citizen Science GIS Program, a National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates Site where I worked with a team of fellow students to combine GIS technologies and community-based international research.

From left to right: Chino, Erin, me in the middle, Rigo and Michelle. The five of us worked together this summer to study marine debris along the coast of Hopkins.

The summer started like a whirlwind, eight students from across the United States meeting in Orlando with our research advisers Dr. Timothy L. Hawthorne from the University of Central Florida and Dr. Christy C. Visaggi remotely from Georgia State University. As eight students from eight different disciplines, we began our seven week research experience getting acquainted with GIS, community-based research, and Hopkins Village, Belize, where we would be living and working for the next month. After a week of intense learning, we flew to Belize to meet the two Belizean students who would be joining us, and the work began.

Our destination was Hopkins Village, situated along the Caribbean Sea and snuggled into the Stann Creek District of Belize. This seaside village is home to a little over 1,500 permanent residents and has become a tourist destination for its beaches and the local Garifuna culture. Traditionally a fishing-based village, Hopkins is currently transitioning toward a tourism-based economy.

A view of the village of Hopkins from the public pier.

Hopkins is a coastal village that experiences flooding and accumulations of marine debris along its coast. For the course of the summer, the ten students split into two teams – to study these occurrences. Our goal was to collect data on marine debris and flooding in Hopkins that would be open and free to anyone that wants to access it. I studied marine debris with a team of four other students. We spent the summer developing our research questions and methods and collecting data using GIS tools.

These two photos show marine debris that washes up along the coast of Hopkins. Both man-made debris such as plastic and styrofoam and natural debris like seagrass and coconuts can be found.

The above photograph displays part of our methods. We used a one meter by one meter quadrat divided into 25 sections to help us measure the debris on the beach. We would place the quadrat on the ground and record the number and type of debris pieces found within the quadrat.

On the marine debris track, we focused on how marine debris affects the local communities. There is ample research about the prevalence of marine debris globally and its detrimental effects on human and ecosystem health, but we wanted to know how marine debris specifically affects the community of Hopkins.

To answer this question we needed to know what kind of debris washes up on the beaches of Hopkins and how community members feel and respond to the debris. Our data collection was two-fold – first we collected the amount and distribution of marine debris found along the three-mile stretch of Hopkin’s beach. Then we interviewed community members and asked questions regarding marine debris such as: How do you feel about marine debris? Where do you think the debris comes from? Does it affect your daily life? What do you think you or others can do about marine debris? In addition to asking these questions, we used a technique called perception mapping to collect spatial information about marine debris in Hopkins. Perception mapping is a technique that allows people to share their knowledge of an area by drawing on a map to demarcate certain areas. In this way, individuals can share information spatially and local knowledge can be included on maps. For our research, we asked community members to draw areas in Hopkins that they valued very highly and then to explain why this area was important to them. We had a second mapping activity in which people marked the areas where they felt large amounts of debris accumulated.

An example of perception mapping. A community member could look at a map of Hopkins and mark the area that was important to them by tapping the screen. The text on the right side of the photo shows the reasons for valuing a given location and community members were asked to select all that applied.

The above map combines all of the areas that were drawn in response to the question, “Which areas in Hopkins do you value highly?”. Areas that are darker in color indicate more responses for that area. The pier and old school grounds were frequently mentioned areas and their locations are marked and labeled on this map.

By the end of the summer, we had walked all three miles of the beach to describe the debris along the coast. We interviewed over one hundred community members about their perceptions of marine debris and did perception mapping activities with them. The data that we collected over the course of the summer will be available online via ArcOnline as well as provided to the community in paper maps, so that internet or computer access will not be a barrier to information access.

Our team, visible in the bright orange shirts, collecting marine debris data on the beach with community members. One of our goals this summer was to share our project and our methods with as many members of the community as we could.

As well as making all of our data open, we worked with community members to collect data, making both our data and methods open and available. Over the course of the summer, we taught several youth and adults how to operate the apps we used and to collect data according to our methods.We partnered with Hamansi Resort whose staff will collect data on beach debris bimonthly on the area in front of their resort.

Working with the people of Hopkins this summer heightened my awareness of the possibilities of community-based research and citizen science research. The connections and relationships between people and the environment were very evident as we discussed beach debris in the community. Speaking with community members highlighted the differences in perspectives about environmental issues – some people thought of the debris as natural and that it was beyond their control, some said nature cleans itself, and some attributed the debris to people. Even in the 100 or so people that we were able to interview, the perceptions of marine debris and its impacts varied widely. These disparities in views and values underscored the importance of our work.

This summer has reinforced my interest in environmental research. However, now when I think about pursuing a degree in conservation and management, I think about the human-environment relationships in a different way. This summer I used GIS as a tool for data collection and analysis, but more importantly as a tool to express thoughts and ideas, to express personal connections to a place. I hope to pursue a career that allows me to work closely with communities to share knowledge and build healthier human-ecosystem relationships.

As I gained experience with community-based research this summer, I reflected on the other research experiences I have had. I think about how much stronger those other research projects could have been had they included local knowledge. I believe it is necessary to understand people's ideas and how they relate to a research question. By understanding individual and local concerns, more effective solutions can be put in place to build sustainable relationships between humans and their environment. The Citizen Science GIS REU Site will host more students over the coming years and build on the work we did this summer and the team from the previous did as well. I can’t wait to see how our work will continue to grow.

Citizen Science GIS Team after a Youth Academy Day where we taught Hopkins youth about drones and mapping.

RACHEL LAYKO is a junior studying biology with a marine science focus at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. She hopes to combine GIS and citizen science to help build sustainable relationships between human communities and their surrounding environment.

To contact the YouthMappers chapter at William and Mary, please e-mail

Photo Credit: A big thank you to Lain Graham who took many of the photos included in this post.

Disclaimer: This material is based upon work supported by the United States National Science Foundation under Grant #1560015. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

For more information:

Dr. Timothy L. Hawthorne, Assistant Professor of Geographic Information Systems

Principal Investigator of the Citizen Science GIS NSF REU Site

University of Central Florida Department of Sociology

Orlando, Florida 32816


Office Phone: 407-823-1030

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