Monday, May 11, 2015

Part 3 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Clean Water & Clean Air

A citizen science civic hacking project that would be of personal interest to me is one dealing with clean water or clean air. Below are a few random thoughts about water and air in case others are considering hacking either of them.

tl;dr -- lots of science stuff about water and air sampling and monitoring...

I'd enjoy working on this aspect of civic hacking for two reasons. One reason is that in my professional life as a chemical engineer, I've spent a lot of time dealing with water treatment and water analysis, and to a lesser extent, with air treatment and analysis. So the science would be familiar and easy to work with. The other reason for my personal interest is that I have to breathe the air and drink or use the water in northeast Wisconsin, as well as other areas of the US when I travel. So I'd like to be aware of problems with the water and air, and contribute where I can to preventing or solving water and air problems.

Below is a look at these two areas of citizen science which civic hackers might want to consider. There are undoubtedly more citizen science projects dealing with clean air and clean water, but the ones mentioned below will give you an intro to this aspect of civic hacking, and one of them might be a good place to start if this kind of civic work interests you. Most of what I cover in the overview for clean water applies also to clean air. Specific projects for air will mostly be different from the water projects, but many project issues will involve similar aspects of science.

Clean Water Citizen Science

If someone wants to work on a clean water citizen science civic hack in northeast Wisconsin on June 6 during the "DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015," their first choice will be to decide if they want to (1) work on doing something interesting during the event with government open data about water or (2) investigate hands-on citizen science water projects in our region and help form a team with others interested in working on one of the water projects.

If you want to work with government open data about water, you can (A) work on the Visualizing Nutrients project or (B) do online research to find out what publicly-available water data is online for Appleton or elsewhere in northeast Wisconsin.

The Visualizing Nutrients project from the USGS, US EPA and Blue Legacy is intended to "help educate and inspire action to address algal blooms, hypoxia and other nutrient-related water quality issues." It would be fun to create a couple data visualizations for this challenge to submit from the Appleton hackathon -- maybe Nick O can look at that because he sounded like data visualization is one of his specialties.

The US Open Water Data Initiative has a ton of water data, but I'm not enough of a data scientist or big data person to figure out if anything from that program would be useful to civic hacker coders to do anything useful or interesting with on June 6. We can poke around on the website to see if there's something we want to use, or maybe someone deeply involved with water data can take the lead on that. I'll contact a couple water organizations to see if anyone from them will participate in the civic hackathon and maybe suggest valuable or interesting data sets from the Open Water Data Initiative.

If you want to work with water data sets on June 6, your other option is to look at websites for Appleton and other city or counties in the region to see what water data is online. Even if we can't find water info labeled as 'open data' there might be water data we can scrape and create interesting visualizations or correlations. We could also search online to see if we can find other civic hacks with water data, then figure out how to replicate that in our area. By the end of the civic hackathon, we might be able to propose one or more water data sets that it would be worthwhile to make available online in the future.

For those who prefer not to work primarily with numbers, you could instead do hands-on science and get involved directly with designing or building sensors or monitoring equipment, with taking samples or measurements, and with other aspects of collecting and interpreting data about the air and water around us. You don't have to be an environmental engineer or technician to learn about or work on this kind of citizen science. You can learn from all the resources online, you can learn from others involved with this work, or some organizations, like University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX), offer training sessions. Below are a few specific opportunities to get involved with that work. If you're interested in one of these, research them online and jump right in. Or we can talk about this at the civic hackathon on June 6 and start developing a plan or a project to get more involved.

The Public Lab Open Water Initiative would be the first one I'd get involved with because it seems like a prototypical participant-driven citizen science project. It feels like it has enough serious scientists involved to give it legitimacy and direction, enough 3D printing and open hardware design to give it an open technology feel, and a small enough organizational structure to keep it from being bogged down in bureaucracy and or averse to innovation and new ideas. The Open Water wiki says:
"Public Lab is working to make water quality information more accessible for communities everywhere. We're designing a water quality monitoring approach that will be: low-cost, open source, easy to build, use, and maintain. We're hoping to enable communities to develop their own grassroots water quality monitoring networks and to assess common threats to local water quality -- like industrial pollution, coliform bacteria, road salt, and agriculture runoff."
RIFFLE 3D Printed End-cap
They've designed a sensor enclosure that's built with 3D printing (we could do that at the Appleton Makerspace or maybe the Fox Valley Technical College Fab Lab). And we could also put together the electronics at the Appleton Makerspace, or maybe at FVTC, Plexus, Surface Mount Technology Corporation or elsewhere in northeast Wisconsin that has equipment for working on electronics projects. Lots of fun learning with this project, as well as a ton of ways to contribute.

A more established and traditional water monitoring program is the UWEX Water Action Volunteers (WAV). In our part of the state, it appears that the River Keepers from the Central Wisconsin Chapter of Trout Unlimited does most of the WAV water monitoring.  UWEX does training of volunteers on how to monitor, and their website has a pretty good overview of their Citizen-Based Water Monitoring Network.

The greenSTEM project made its public appearance at a hackathon in 2013, is in active use in Philadelphia schools (and maybe other cities), and has a ton of opportunities for personal contributions and innovations. The greenSTEM Network "connects students to the environment by monitoring and mining data from gardens, green roofs, and various types of green stormwater infrastructure...the greenSTEM Network displays real-time environmental help students maintain healthy school gardens, learn about water-related issues, and conduct scientific experiments and analyses." If you're interested in the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities, this might be a project you should investigate a bit more. We could build the greenSTEM monitors at the Appleton Makerspace, and some of the regions more STEM or technical-focused middle or high schools may want to get involved with the project. See also the discussion about greenSTEM in my earlier post, "Part 2 Citizen Science + Civic Hacking: Fifteen Projects."

I'm not sure the City of Appleton is ready to start creating or discussing official endorsement of greenSTEM and permeable stormwater mini-catch basins, as described in "How the Water Dept. and civic hackers are helping student gardens go high tech." But the concept can be pursued on a citizen hacker level. Sustainable Fox Valley or some of the neighborhood associations in Appleton may want to consider this type of water monitoring and improvement citizen hack. Permeable paver block driveways and sidewalks are an urban stormwater management tool I remember reading about when I research sustainability practices associated with The Natural Step movement. This would be a practical application of the STEM concepts students hear about in class these days. The article linked above explains it like this:
"For more than a year, Fritch has been developing a soil-monitoring kit with a volunteer group of civic hackers. In a few weeks, the first batch of greenSTEM Network devices will be introduced to four public schools...and he’s doing a few last-minute tests on something he essentially built from scratch...Around the city, you might have come across a corner of sidewalk that’s been torn up and replaced with a shallow pit. That’s the start of a rain garden. Plants will eventually grow over the depression, capturing runoff from impervious surfaces, like asphalt and concrete, and ultimately prevent pollutants from entering the sewer system...Over the next 25 years, the Water Department will install green storm-water infrastructure like this in thousands of locations around the city. Schools are receiving special attention, partly because playgrounds can be vast swathes of impenetrable asphalt...With the help of a $400,000 grant from PWD and the Enviromental Protection Agency, the schoolyard underwent a massive renovation. Part of the blacktop was torn up and replaced with a permeable surface; a rain garden was planted around the periphery. “We thought it would be a good idea to have the kids connect with those rain gardens and have some STEM education attached to this whole program we have going on,” says Fritch."
A different type of water monitoring program is the NOAA Great Lakes invasives species program. You don't have to be a kid to be involved with this, but it would be a great outdoor activity to do with your kids. The NOAA Citizen Science Projects webpage gives summaries of other relevant water projects.

Three other options to consider is to contact the Milwaukee Water Council, the UWMilwaukee School of Freshwater Studies, or maybe a northeast Wisconsin college, such as UW-Green Bay, to see if they know of current or developing citizen science projects.

The final option is to create a new independent project, such as monitoring private well water for nitrates or bacteria, monitoring ground water or surface water for a specific contaminant of interest to you, or investigating other water quality issues seen as a problem or potential problem in an area of high concern to you.

Clean Air Cititzen Science

Many of the above suggestions for water apply to 'how to get involved' in clean air projects. You may be more interested in air because you or someone you know has asthma, seasonal allergies, or some other airborne contaminant. Or you might just think air monitoring is more fun or worthwhile. So here are a couple citizen science air projects to introduce you to the topic.

Most of the things mentioned above about the Public Lab water project apply to their Open Air Initiative. Public Lab Open Air's main wiki page was a bit more challenging to me from a standpoint of understanding what their doing and figuring out how to get involved, but the Initiative's explanation on the Public Lab's main webpage gives a good description of the project.
"The Open Air Initiative supports the work of individuals and groups across the globe focused on creating better indoor and outdoor air quality for their communities. From interest in measuring the amount of silica dust in the air to creating an at home set-up for recording refinery flares, the Public Lab community is working toward creating easy, understandable, accessible tools and techniques for monitoring airborne toxics. Public Lab Open Air projects include:
(1) Particulate Sensing: Measuring and detecting particulate matter using sensing devices around silica sand mining sites in Wisconsin.
(2) Indoor Air Quality Monitoring: Creating a community portal (Where We Breathe) for sharing and recording information about air quality and health effects in manufactured housing, and developing tools available for self-testing and remediation through a “lending library” model.
(3) Hydrogen Sulfide Sensing: Detecting hydrogen sulfide near natural gas hydraulic fracturing sites using colorimetric sensors
Village Green park bench
The EPA Village Green project sounds challenging and costly, but worthwhile to mimic. It would be awesome for an northeast Wisconsin team to build a solar-powered air-monitoring park bench as described in "EPA Announces Installation of Park Benches with Solar-Powered Air Monitors in Five Cities" and be one of only a very few cities in the US to have an clean air project like this. Appleton doesn't have a significant air contamination problem (that I'm aware of), but if a few people have an interest in this project, it's better to prevent air problems by establishing baseline numbers, monitoring to know when we start going significantly above the baseline, and taking action to prevent having a problem. This Village Green project website and the webpage for the Kansas City Village Green park bench project give a couple other perspectives on the project.

If air monitoring appeals to you, consider checking out the EPA Air Sensor Toolbox webpage.

The Clean Air Council Climate Tracker sounds like a fun project to get involved with, but I couldn't tell if the project is still active, or if they just haven't published much online info or progress lately. It seemed like the project could be dormant, or it might currently be a personal project for a limited number of people. If you want to work on the Climate Tracker project or fork the project with a northeast Wisconsin twist, the first step would be to contact people who are working on or have worked on the project. Learn more about the Climate Tracker by reading "The Clean Air Council Climate Tracker Will Track Pollution In Real Time" and "Clean Air Council's Open Climate Tracker." There appears to be a somewhat similar project in NYC, "Wearable Sensors Will Measure How Much Air Pollution City Cyclists Inhale." And other citizen scientists and makers around the world have likely created similar mobile air monitors at their local makerspace, at work or at home. The website Citizen Sense has a bunch of pollutant sensing projects you may want to look at. The article "Becoming Civic: Fracking, Air Pollution and Environmental Sensing Technologies" gives one perspective on this part of citizen science.

An EPA presentation PDF, "New Technologies for Air Monitoring" gives a brief look at some available technologies as of early 2015 and mentions the Village Green project. The agenda for a 2014 EPA air sensor conference will give you a people and projects to research further if you're a clean air civic hacker, and the Citizen / Community Monitoring Update presentation gives you another perspective on this citizen science topic.

For 95% to 100% of the civic hackers who will participate in the June 6 civic hackathon, this post was either confusing or of little to no interest. But if it was something you're highly interested in, contact Bob Waldron at bwaldron (at) gmail [dott] com or talk to me at the hackathon.

If you want to participate in the (free) DHMN Civic Hackathon/Appleton 2015 but haven't reserved your spot yet, Register TODAY!!


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