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Data Drops : Open Source Water Data Collection

Sponsored remote water data sensors used to collect information with the help of public participation to generate a crowdsourced data base.

Photo of Natalie LeRoy
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How does your idea apply new technologies to make agriculture and water systems more resilient in the face of climate threats?

The United States is facing historic cuts to conservation programs and a rollback on pollution laws while data is becoming more difficult to find. Crowd-sourced water monitoring is not new, but the technologies that can make it widespread are. How can a third party group involve citizens in monitoring water quality, display information online and improve public knowledge of water conservation?

How can a third party group involve citizens in monitoring water quality, display information online and improve public knowledge of water conservation?

Our group is proposing that the efforts of three parties get involved using existing business models, technology of the near future, and human interaction patterns to crowd-source water data in the United States. To learn about how citizen science initiative work, what is the latest in water monitoring technology, and the impact of crowd-sourcing, we first interviewed field experts. From there, we sketched a tentative plan that is based on previous crowd-sourced data initiatives to form Data Drops. 

How it works: 

Companies and citizens adopt water monitoring sensors placed in strategic areas. Citizens download an app that runs in the background of their phone and prompts the citizen to allow the device to use their cellular service to upload sensor data to the cloud. The data is then sorted and tracked on a public website. Company sponsors assist in promoting the program by donating a small amount of money to a conservation charity that is proportionate to the amount of interaction with the sensors.

The Sensors:

Sophisticated water sensors are available on the market ranging from $15-$4,000 and can track the health of water through a variety of factors such as: nitrogen levels, dissolved oxygen, heavy metals, phosphates, salt content, bacterial content, etc.

In the future, citizens will be able to implant chips into their pipes to monitor water quality and use devices as small as a flash drive to test water. But right now, conservation groups, and other environmental initiatives often rely on small groups of dedicated volunteers to go out with rented equipment to test water.

We could lower the barrier to entry for volunteers by allowing them to conduct water testing from their smartphones. Sensors that exist for commercial water testing purposes are meant to be rugged, charge through solar power, and have a multitude of tests stored on internal chips. Yet they still rely on routers within their area to relay information to a data base. They take special training to read and use. For the personal environmental testing market, there are sensors that hook up to a smartphone such as Lapka, and relay information to a personal data base. While the interface is simple, the readings and information are sophisticated, and the familiarity with a smart phone makes them appealing to users.

Our group has thus designed an interface and business plan that is meant to inspire users to relay information from commercial sensors as they would with personal devices.

Human Interaction:

What motivates people to change their behavior regarding conservation is tricky. According to Nate Conroy, the founder of StemHero, folks were not apt to change their ways by being paid to make changes in their lives to save water, even if it amounted to upwards of $40 / month.  Instead, his best results came from initiating participation in testing with kids and parents. In a similar thread about behavior changes, economist Robert Metcalfe found that socially shaming/praising participants in behavior changes did not initiate new behavior patterns and that paying people to change their behavior had no lasting effect beyond the reward. Participants had to be emotionally invested in changing their behavior, and would prefer to do something purely out of altruistic intent rather than benefit themselves. But modern conservationists shy away from using messages of crying Native Americans, or pictures of fields of trash. They are more comfortable with sharing information to inspire people rather than guilt them.

Our team looked at modern business models of small acts of altruism or physical participation that required users to spend time, effort or money to make the model work.

In Sweatcoin we found that users are willing to have their data tracked in order to earn some sort of small monetary compensation that they can cash in for sponsored goodies or donations. Many users reported enjoying seeing the data they generated and spending money on charity causes.

With Pokemon Go users, participants related using maps generated by crowd sourced information about the best places to play. They enjoyed tracking down “spawning areas” and the thrill of chasing new map points. users enjoy playing games to donate their winnings to a good cause, in this case rice that is given to families in areas of famine. Playing increases to generate more rice even though there is no user benefit beyond word games.

Non-profit donations have surged because participants are now able to text their donations after crisis. In fact businesses have sprung up to facilitate such interactions, such as Bid Pal.

Lapka users plug their smart devices into sensors to read a variety of environmental information and store It for the user to check in with their data and create a world map of data.

Eventually, Lapka hopes to map the enviro`1nmental quality of the entire world.

From this information, our group inferred that we were looking to design something that felt native to the phone- users could contribute by just agreeing to let the sensors use their data at the swipe of a notification, find sensors through an interactive map, track their progress, and get rewards for participating that would be solely altruistic.

Crowd Sourced Data: Citizen science

The United states has been using crowd sourced data from citizen scientists for over a century; in the past data was sent through letters and more recently through text messages. Without citizen science, the amount of water data collected could simply not exist.

There are a variety of initiatives that exist currently, but none draw on the sensor technology, connecting data bases and mapping data for public use.

Some current examples:

Crowd Hydrology:  Hikers can text in measurements and readings in ten states to a collective. 

The USGS and BGS: For the last five years, the National Map Corps at USGS has collected all its citizen updates online. 12,000 volunteers across the country have submitted more than 25,000 data points, allowing USGS to acquire and check data from citizens with local knowledge. 


In short, the core of this idea is already functioning in the world, but it hasn't been brought up to a more accessible level of interaction with the everyday public. Sensors are already becoming mainstream devices to test and map every environmental condition by taking measurements, viewing and storing data through a smartphone. People participate in a variety of games, services, and initiatives that track their locations and enable them to donate time, money or energy quickly and near effortlessly. Governments and conservation groups have been reliant on citizen scientists for a century, and will continue to rely on them as funding is scaled back. We can utilize the momentum from each of these factors into a smart, simple, accessible platform that can inform many groups. 

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Our group would like to test our small prototype in real life, and then build a functioning model working with conservation groups that have agreed to be tested.

We are excited to learn about ideas at diverse stages of development. At what stage would you currently classify your idea as? (multiple choice)

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.
  • Prototyping: I have done some small tests or experiments with prospective users to continue developing my idea.

How do you plan to grow or scale this idea?

We plan to verify the UX design before building out the UI and prototype farther, then testing the human interaction. When our prototype is at a conclusive state, we plan to begin consulting with developers, scientists, and citizen science groups to run a small model.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

Our group is interested in exploring the abilities of LPWAN technology with a mentor and learning about gathering large sets of data and displaying it effectively.

This idea emerged from:

A group of designers located in various parts of the country.

Tell us about your work experience:

Natalie LeRoy is a UX designer with a 6 years of experience in branding design and public art. Specializing in creating experiences for people that stick in their minds, encourage public discourse and learning. She volunteers with ChiHackNight weekly designing Civic Tech Projects with other members and runs her own design studio. Kelsey Fiegle is a UX designer with a background in research psychology, graphic design and coding. She also is volunteering with ChiHackNight designing Civic Tech initiatives with other members. Juliana Park is a UX designer with a background in business strategy and management.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chris Peacock

Natalie LeRoy and team - great post. Citizen science and water are an interesting combination. I spent time in January with a few folks in India who were exploring similar ideas. I am curious how you monetize a solution like this without significant reliance on third party donations. This is high value to our entire water ecosystem and could provide us with data that we did not have access to before. Great idea! Looking forward to seeing how you move forward!

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