In River Science, Water Pollution, Water Quality

The Future of Water Quality Data

World Water Monitoring Day (now known as EarthEcho Water Challenge) is coming up on September 18th and droves of citizen scientists across the globe will head out to local waters to gain a snapshot of their water quality. If you are reading this blog, you may be one of the thousands of staff, volunteers, students, or researchers across the country who participate in World Water Monitoring Day or regularly monitor local streams, rivers, lakes, docks, or beaches.

There is a lot of monitoring happening, and World Water Monitoring day is just a drop in the bucket. Aside from various federal, state, and local government agencies, there are university researchers and educational programs. But by far the largest groups of monitors are the citizen or community scientists at thousands of nonprofit watershed organizations across the country.

With all this data being collected, you would think it would be easy to access good information about local water quality. But the question “How clean is my local creek?” is almost always difficult to answer. Our nation is a patchwork of regions, states, counties, communities, and watersheds where data is either adding up to accessible information, or it is not.

Why isn’t data more accessible to local communities? First, data needs to be collected, which is no small task. Many state agencies struggle to maintain monitoring budgets. Currently they rely on randomized sampling and statistics to assess waters. In fact, your local creek might only be sampled in a single location, once every few years, or perhaps it has never been sampled at all. That’s not going to give you much assurance if you’re wondering whether it’s safe to use the creek today.

When you consider boots and eyes on the ground, the number of locations and frequency of sampling, no government agency has the budget and staff to accomplish what volunteer monitors can. The citizen science community plays a critical role in measuring and conveying water-health data to the public and agency administrators.

Because of this, a number of states have invested in programs to train and equip volunteers to monitor and share data. In the best cases, that data informs regulatory processes and is made accessible to the public through dynamic websites. Where these types of resources don’t exist, you might find a sophisticated nonprofit that has been able to overcome these challenges on their own, providing beneficial information to their watershed’s community. Overall, though, the patchwork is mostly empty and the majority of data that is collected is not readily accessible.

In order for water data to become useful, it has to be collected, entered, managed, assessed, analyzed, visualized, and finally translated into accessible formats. Without a larger program for support, citizen monitoring programs are left to complete these often difficult technical challenges on their own. We see unrealistic job postings like this all the time: Wanted: Monitoring Coordinator Unicorn with science degree and 5 years experience in volunteer management, taxonomy, data management, R programming, GIS, event planning, boat operation, and CPR certified. Must be able to work for peanuts, housing provided (on boat).

Our framework for water monitoring needs to evolve and technologies exist to make that shift. In fact, thinking and acting as a connected network of data collectors has never been more important.

Technology is Changing Monitoring

In the 15 years that I have been monitoring streams and rivers, there have been some remarkable changes in how we gather data. Although I am nostalgic for the feel of waterproof paper, the wooden handle of a d-frame net, and a dry-rotted pair of hip waders, new technologies offer exciting solutions. River Network has been cataloguing some of the best new technologies and resources in our Science and Technical Resources Portal.

Your smartphone is a powerful computer. More powerful than the bulky meters that operate our water quality probes. Phones and tablets can take pictures or video, record GPS, and communicate with the internet. What if I told you it is now possible to quickly set up a system on your own, for free, that will allow you to enter data in the field, and have that data be automatically be stored online, while it updates live charts on your website? It’s true. Visit our Science and Technical Resources Portal to read about it.

Telling Your Data’s Story

I love data. But most people don’t. Most people like going into the field and collecting it, but at the point it goes into spreadsheets data starts losing its appeal. Bugs, for example, are a lot more fun when they’re crawling around on a net intriguing or scaring children than they are when converted into biological metrics. The public, for the most part, wants well-packaged information—in colorful animated gifs, preferably. That makes overcoming the challenges of data visualization paramount.

As Science Manager, calls from groups struggling with data visualization is the second most common call I get, right behind databases. Lots of groups struggle to tell their data’s story with Excel charts. You might be one of them. I would be, too, if I was trying to use Excel. Thankfully, there are some new resources that make high-quality charts simple to make and easy to share. River Network is cataloguing and explaining these resources in our Science and Technical Resources Portal, from how to organize your data, to free online data visualization services, and trainings and resources for the DIYer looking to learn R. We’re also linking to resources for building report cards and infographics.

Open Data is Going to Change Everything (Eventually)

If you’ll pardon the pun, I think water data is about to have its watershed moment. The architects and stewards of our collective water data systems are slowly building the tools to connect water data and fill-in the patchwork. It’s similar to the medical records industry and road data. Both of these data types used to have a similar lack of conformity. Health records had to be requested and faxed over. Driving somewhere unfamiliar involved navigation with a paper map, or printed or written directions. Now we have patient portals and traffic alerts and the ability to search for restaurants along our route. How? Because those two data industries agreed on a data standard.

Agreement on small things like what we label parameters, and what information is included, and how it’s organized allows our data to become what is called “machine-readable.” If everyone’s data looks the same, and it’s all in the same place, then it can be analyzed and produced into information more easily with online tools. EPA’s Water Quality Exchange (WSX) is one such standard, and their Water Quality Portal (WQP) stores standardized data for access. New analytical services are being built onto these existing structures, converting that data into information. To take advantage of what’s coming, all that you need to do is get your data into the system. However, the technical requirements and hurdles are large and less than 100 nonprofits have managed to contribute their data to the portal on their own. Working under a new partnership known as the Water Data Collaborative, River Network is working with the EPA and other partners to break down barriers and fill gaps that cause so much of our data to go down the drain. The Internet of Water is coming, if you’re ready for it.

To learn more about advances in water monitoring, check out our Science and Technical Resources Portal.

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