Deploying Modern Data Infrastructure to Track Trash Removal Across the Anacostia River

Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK) partnered with The Commons to build a modern data management system to track and visualize trash collected from the Anacostia River in the District of Columbia

Project Takeaways


Pounds of trash removed by Anacostia Riverkeeper and project partners


Cleanup Events Documented by partners using our newly deploy platform.


Hours of time donated by volunteers cleaning up the Anacostia


Volunteers mobilized

"This project with The Commons holistically revolutionizes how we manage our Trash Trap Data. It streamlines subcontractor processes through digitized record uploads, allows management and segmentation of data like never before, and creates a dynamic data-focused dashboard. The DC Trash Trap data infrastructure project is a huge benefit not only for our organization but for the community and watershed stakeholders to better understand litter in their neighborhood."

Quinn Molner
Director of Operations, Anacostia Riverkeeper

Project Deployment Strategy

Working in partnership with Anacostia Riverkeeper and DC Department of Energy and the Environment, The Commons created a comprehensive data management and visualization system for documenting trash removal events. These stakeholder collected data are now informing state and federal decision making related to the Anacostia Watershed's Total Maximum Daily Load for Trash.

AirTable | Data Management

Working with our project partners, The Commons deployed an AirTable Base to facilitate easy collection and management of trash cleanup locations, events, and necessary attributes.

Pipedream | Integration

Leveraging Pipedream, our team deployed a series of Workflows that watch for event changes in AirTable and automatically sync data to ArcGIS Online as records are added, updated, or deleted.

ArcGIS Online | Mapping & Analytics

Using ArcGIS Online, our team deployed a live updating dashboard depicting trash cleanup locations and statistics on the volume and type of trash being removed by partners in the Anacostia Watershed.

Training and Support

Throughout the lifecycle of the project, our team grew proficiency amongst Anacostia Riverkeeper staff to full fully operate, maintain, and extend the deployed system with limited developer intervention.


Project and Environmental Policy Intersection

The Anacostia River has long suffered from pollution and environmental degradation. Years of mismanagement and development and, more recently, trash and debris choke the river and its tributaries. In fact, the refuse problem is so detrimental to water quality in the watershed that, the Anacostia is one of only a few rivers in the US with dedicated total maximum, daily loads (TMDLs) for trash. To combat this, the District Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) has installed in-river trash traps to capture and immobilize trash throughout the DC portion of the Anacostia River, effectively preventing trash from leaving the watershed and flowing into the larger Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. Recently, the DOEE has partnered with Anacostia Riverkeeper (ARK) and other local non-profits to maintain, clean out, and track the amount and type of trash collected in these trash traps. Data integrity detailing the quantity and type of trash removed is a critical component of this partnership. AnacostiaRiverkeeper teamed up with The Commons to help build a modernized data collection and management system enabling ARK and their partners to collect and organize trash data, allowing District regulators to easily track the trash collection process year over year. This data management system was paired with a public-facing dashboard, enabling anyone to view near real-time clean-up events removing trash from the river. The newly established visibility into trash collection efforts on rivers is still relatively new, permitting ARK, their partners, and the District to increase transparency for cleanup efforts at a level rarely seen for debris mitigation in the Chesapeake region.

Aquatic debris in the form of human-manufactured trash and litter has become one of the most pressing contaminants of concern in waterways across the world. Aquatic debris can wreak havoc on delicate ecosystems as well as have serious impacts on local human populations by impacting drinking water sources and food production. The District of Columbia serves as an unfortunate bellwether for this issue as the area has seen an increase in development and, subsequently, an increase in trash plaguing its waterways. The Anacostia River, one of the three primary water bodies running through the District, is one of the few rivers in the nation where a total maximum daily load (TMDL) specifically targeting trash has been established. Simply put — human-generated litter is such a problem on the Anacostia that DC and the state of Maryland are required by law to mitigate trash levels on the river to keep them in check.

To combat this issue, the District has implemented a comprehensive trash management system throughout the city, relying on a combination of policy and technological tools to reduce trash loads in city waterways. Prominent mitigation tools used by the city are in-river trash traps, which capture trash flowing downstream, allowing it to be collected and removed from the water before it can make its way further into the watershed. After the capital investment in reducing trash in the Anacostia, funders turned towards establishing a verifiable information pipeline. Without an established system and method, very little data would make its way to the public in a way that is easily accessible. 

In 2023, DOEE teamed up with Anacostia Riverkeeper and their watershed partners to not only clean and maintain the Anacostia trash traps, but also to develop a system to collect and record the data in a way that would allow it to be easily organized and visualized for public use. Having previously worked together on other water quality initiatives, Anacostia Riverkeeper partnered with The Commons to assist in building a new data infrastructure system that would centrally locate and organize Anacsotia trash trap data while also structuring it in a way that would allow the public to view it in near real-time. Through the use of software as a service (SaaS) platforms and a defined workflow, The Commons constructed a database that powered an online dashboard, allowing for the real-time collection and organization of data that could then be summarized and visualized for anyone to see.


Project Planning

Recently, increased focus and funding has been placed on updating traditional chemical and biological water quality data from agency and community data generators to ensure it conforms to FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data principles. However, with the renewed focus on new contaminants of concern like microplastics, trash, and PFAS, the science of collection and standardized reporting is still emerging, causing them to lag behind traditional water quality parameters. The Commons’ Digital Services program takes a holistic approach to environmental data, allowing us to deploy customized data management solutions to organizations, producing projects that meet FAIR data standards while also being cost-effective to extend and maintain. 

This project started as an extension of work that the District, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and other watershed organizations were already undertaking relating to trash on the Anacostia. In-river trash traps in DC have been monitored and cleaned out by various organizations since 2015, however in a decentralized and unstructured manner. Additionally, the various data collection and storage methodologies already in use by the District, Anacostia Riverkeeper, and their partners made it harder for this data to be visualized and shared with the public due to its siloed nature. 

The goal of this project was to bring all of those disparate data collection efforts under one umbrella, allowing the data collected by separate organizations to be collated and organized in a central database for all DC trash traps. When boiled down, The Commons and Anacostia Riverkeeper staff identified three key areas of focus to solve these challenges: (a) a dedicated data collection method that could be used by all organizations involved, (b) a centralized, user-friendly database that could structure and organize this data into a coherent and shareable data model, and (c) a publicly accessible dashboard that is easily updated and afforded the community near real-time information about trash collected from DC Anacostia trash traps.



The biggest priority when mapping out the needs of this project was to not reinvent the wheel (not to be confused with Mr. Trash Wheel). The District and organizations like Anacostia Riverkeeper have been collecting trash, and trash data, in various forms for years. This data has come from trash traps as well as on-land cleanups and was stored on everything from paper sheets to Excel spreadsheets. While systems like Excel provide almost an infinite set of flexibility, the current approach and use of this software resulted in a lack of repeatable processes in data management, resulting in the propagation of many different data models positioned exclusively for report generation, undermining our stakeholder’s ability to show collective statistics on amount and types of trash removed. For this project, we needed to find the best way to centralize the data collection stream coming from these Anacostia trash traps and organize it in a simple way that is beneficial for District regulators as well as the public. Our goal when approaching this project was to modernize preexisting workflow to increase the data utility and visibility. The elements outlined in this section characterize the below-the-deck work undertaken and tools used to facilitate efficient collective analysis, reporting, and communication.

Assembling the software toolkit: curating a data management system

Let’s walk through the software we used to complete this project. 

Airtable. Airtable is a cloud-based data management platform that allows users to configure, input, store, and organize large datasets in user-friendly ways. For this project, Airtable serves as the centralized database to aggregate all of DC’s trash trap data collected by Anacostia Riverkeeper and its partners. On top of this, Airtable allows for the creation of data collection forms, allowing different users to collect data and feed it into a standardized data model. Airtable’s application programming interface (API) allows for multiple integrations with various third-party applications, setting the project up for success for public visualizations and interactive data exploration. We configured Airtable to push hosted data to an ArcGIS Online feature service that can then power a public-facing data visualization. 

ArcGIS OnlineArcGIS Online is a cloud-based geospatial mapping and analysis service offered by ESRI as a part of their larger geographic information system (GIS) platform. With ArcGIS Online users can produce maps, dashboards, story maps, and various other public-facing tools to better share their data with the public at large. For this project, ArcGIS Online was used to produce a map and live dashboard to publicly share trash data collected from trash traps in the DC portion of the Anacostia watershed. This dashboard is a first of its kind in the District, allowing stakeholders and the community transparent access to cleanup event data within the Anacostia.

Diagram of the data flow, software utilized, and role of each system in supporting ARK

Building an effective data management system

Step 1. Build a standard data model and template

An exceptional feature of the District and ARK’s trash collection protocol is its attention to detail, with collected trash being characterized by upwards of 20 different categories. ARK approached The Commons with nine years of trash trap data on hand and a loosely defined data model. Working with these core building blocks, we examined what fields needed to be retained and identified additional fields required to support and fuel the necessary reports and analytics needed for successful implementation.  Our new data model was shaped with usability in mind meaning that where field and relationships could be automated we leaned on AirTable’s linked records and formula field types to ensure records could be managed in a way that is accurate and less burdensome on our project partners. 

Data models can differ depending on the intended use case for the data, so for this project, an emphasis on data quality and visualization influenced the construction and format of the model. We reconfigured the data model in Airtable with the core elements intact including maintaining classification categories for trash (i.e., plastic bottles, styrofoam, etc) as well as summary statistics they needed to track.

Maintaining a similar data workflow to the one ARK had previously established was important to help with adoption by partners and decrease the time it would take to train staff on the new system. Nonetheless, the migrated data model was not a direct copy of the information managed in Excel sheets. For example, we made changes that allow for automated roll-ups for total trash weights and counts and the addition of important contextual fields like data sheet uploads supporting quality assurance quality control protocols.

Once the modified data model was established in the database, we used Airtable’s “Forms” feature to create an easy-to-use data input form mapped to the specific data model we created, allowing ARK staff and subcontractors to easily input new data digitally as they would on a field or datasheet. This data collection form allowed disparate organizations to collect data from different traps across the District and upload it to the same structured database, all within the same day. 

Step 2. Connect Airtable database with ArcGIS Online

Once we established the new data model in Airtable, ARK’s data collection and management could resume as normal with all of their trash trap data now centralized in a single database. Additionally, with all data in a structured, machine-readable format it could be connected to ArcGIS Online for POST and PATCH operations for subsequent display in an ArcGIS Online configurable dashboard.

A substantial benefit to using a SaaS approach for your data management system is the built-in integrations already available to users. This project took a low code approach where systems are able to be easily configured and extended by stakeholders that have limited ability to deploy code on their own code, allowing users to connect to third-party applications that can expand the utility or optionality of the central data and workflows. Airtable provides fully documented and open API built on users' established databases. For the District and ARK, a public-facing ArcGIS Online dashboard is essential for community education and awareness surrounding the health of their local waters, so having the ability to manage their data in one place and simultaneously visualize it was a key feature of our project. We leaned on integrations to make this happen.

Airtable and ArcGIS Online allow for data exchange between the two platforms. Speed, automation, and data refresh intervals were important issues that needed to be addressed in their connection. The Commons was able to solve these issues through the use of the third-party API connection platform Pipedream, which allows the seamless connection of APIs with minimal coding and an almost instantaneous data refresh. Thanks to this service, whenever data is updated or added to the trash trap database it is instantly updated and refreshed in the connected ArcGIS Online Feature Service and then pushed to their visualization. Our connection includes commands to push edits, additions, and deletions made in the Airtable base directly to the data hosted in the Feature Service. This anchors data management to Airtable and reduces the opportunity to introduce errors to the data powering the ArcGIS Online dashboard. Pipedream also significantly reduces the time spent manually shuffling data from AirTable to ArcGIS Online and allows users to leverage the features of each of these unique platforms in unison.  This connection is an understated boon to the public who can now get real-time trash updates on ARK’s dashboard the same day that it's removed from the river.

Step 4. Create an ArcGIS Online dashboard to power an interactive application 

To build a public-facing dashboard that requires minimal staff oversight and intervention, an Airtable-hosted database is a perfect backend-as-a-service solution to easily push data to third-party systems. Our team created an ArcGIS Online Feature Service using the constructed trash trap Airtable base. If you’re familiar with ArcGIS Online feature services, you know that managing data in ArcGIS Online can be complex and limited when compared to the fluid editing environment offered by AirTable. Most often, someone is required to routinely update and edit the data within the feature service within ArcGIS online or using a connected geodatabase via ArcGIS Pro. This creates issues of version control and introduces opportunities for human error and stale data to be passed off to the public as the authoritative source. Our team was able to solve this through Pipedream, allowing ARK to manage/edit all data in Airtable removing the need for in-depth and lengthy edits in ESRI’s Feature Services.

The resulting dashboard built with the trash trap Feature Service delivers incredible information to decision-makers across the District of Columbia and the larger Chesapeake Bay region. District and Anacostia stakeholders can easily navigate around the dashboard, having the ability to filter trash data by site or date. With this dashboard established as a go-to place for trash collection information throughout the Anacostia watershed, community members can now better understand and see the progress being made to clean up the trash they see on the river right outside their door. With this system being built for maximum sustainability, the District can hope to show the tremendous progress made in reducing trash on the Anacostia for years to come.


Results and Outcomes

Anacostia Riverkeeper is a well-established watershed organization in the DC metropolitan area and has become a regional leader in trash mitigation and policy over the past two decades. With hundreds of tons of trash removed from the Anacostia since 2009, Anacostia Riverkeeper is committed to using data as a linchpin to address the trash problem in DC. For example, data underlies strategies to push for increased community involvement in the process as well as decisive policies in DC and MD to curtail the stream of aquatic debris seen in the Anacostia.

“This project with The Commons holistically revolutionizes how we manage our Trash Trap Data. It streamlines subcontractor processes through digitized record uploads, allows management and segmentation of data like never before, and creates a dynamic data-focused dashboard. The DC Trash Trap data infrastructure project is a huge benefit not only for our organization but for the community and watershed stakeholders to better understand litter in their neighborhood.” - Quinn Molner, Director of Operations, Anacostia Riverkeeper.


Trash data collection modernization and visibility influenced every part of this project, with the final results being a centralized Airtable database for District trash trap data as well as a publicly available dashboard for general consumption. Anacostia Riverkeeper, DOEE, and their partners are now able to collect standardized data that can be aggregated in the same database while also allowing for lightweight analyses like a summary of total trash collected or individual trash counts. This system was paired with a publicly viewable ArcGIS Online map and dashboard allowing the community to see breakdowns of trash mitigation by site and type of trash collected. With this scalable and sustainable data workflow built by The Commons, Anacostia Riverkeeper and its partners can easily collect data from more trash traps or cleanup locations as the program expands. Meanwhile, other organizations in the District and greater Chesapeake region can mirror this approach in their watersheds to better illuminate critical trash cleanup efforts or other water quality dynamics that are currently obscured by technical capacity or funding limitations.


First-of-its-kind modernized trash collection data infrastructure. Typical trash collection programs across the District have usually involved on-land cleanups, paper data sheets, and Excel documents with too many tabs to count. Through this project, the team was able to maintain the well-established data workflow of trash collection efforts while also modernizing it for the benefit of the District, its partners, and the community. For this project, the pivotal question was: how can you gain a more complete picture of the effectiveness of trash traps in the Anacostia if you have different organizations cleaning different traps in different ways on different time scales? Simply put, the answer was to standardize the methods and centralize the data all while giving organizations the autonomy to continue to collect data as they have in the past. By centralizing DC trash trap collection into one Airtable database we were able to delegate different organizations to collect data and feed it into the same database all while working in different parts of the watershed and city.

A data model that mirrors data output requirements for TMDL and grant reporting. 

Data generated under this project will be used for both public communication and inclusion in TMDL reporting for the Anacostia River. The multi-purpose use of this data necessitated the composition of the data model in a way that allowed for the detailed characterization of trash data while also producing summary analyses detailing the total amount of trash removed from the river, which is vital for the city’s TMDL reporting. Looking to the future, as the uses for environmental data grow, it will be important for data generators to think deliberately about their data infrastructure to ensure they’re designed with the intended data uses in mind.  

Access to real-time, city-funded trash collection data for the Anacostia River. Recently, transparency in water data has increased in demand across the globe, with the District of Columbia and its citizens mirroring this demand. With a long history of industrialization, pollution, and poor water health District waters have recently come under increased scrutiny by local decision-makers and the community at large. With a high density of development and recreation occurring along the city's rivers and streams, visible pollution like trash and litter becomes the first image people see when interacting with these waterbodies, with the Anacostia as the worst offender. With a TMDL in place, the collection and methodical documentation of trash data is essential in ensuring that DC and MD meet this requirement. Thankfully, with the advent of more approachable and cost-effective technologies, organizations like Anacostia Riverkeeper can work to remediate this issue and help contribute meaningful data required by the TMDL. With one of the first live-updating trash dashboards in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, the District and Anacostia Riverkeeper are giving city residents updated information regarding trash collection around the Anacostia. This dashboard not only serves to show the immense effort and progress made by Anacostia Riverkeeper, their partners, and the city but also expands public education around the issue of trash in the nation’s capital, allowing them to take a more active role in mitigating the overall impact of aquatic debris.

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