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Open Data and Open Hardware: Tools for Collaborative Solutions to Water Challenges

Summary: Open hardware for water monitoring, combined with a national network of technical support for community science enabled by powerful web-based data sharing and management tools, is leading a revolution in solving water pollution problems.

A brook trout in a shallow stream. Photo by Jeremy Monroe.
Collaborations between citizen scientists, community organizations, and researchers are helping monitor river habitat for iconic species like this brook trout. Photo credit: Jeremy Monroe, Freshwaters Illustrated

On a Thursday afternoon from my office in rural southeastern Pennsylvania I’m watching a freshet arriving on the Kaikokopu River on the north island of New Zealand while keeping tabs on the incoming tide that is pulsing turbidity into the Choptank River from the Chesapeake Bay. While the former is just environmental voyeurism, the latter serves the practical purpose of helping me coordinate a research trip to sites 100 miles away. The utility of accessing real time openly-available data visualizations is not new, but what is special is how these data are being collected using open hardware designs, shared using open data portals, and passed seamlessly between multiple web applications for others to use. This interoperable data standard enables data collectors to make their environmental data easy for anyone to incorporate into their own website, app, or analysis without “touching” the data moving in the background. This is a huge step toward democratizing water data, and is one part of how the Water Data Collaborative and its partners are advancing community-based, participatory science in the US.

Democratizing Quality Data on Water Quality

The Water Data Collaborative is a partnership of organizations who play a central role helping citizen scientists and communities in the US contribute to the collection, analysis, and sharing of water data. Technical service providers in the Water Data Collaborative work together to coordinate training, provide mentorship, develop online resources, and promote communication between water practitioners through the Mainstem Network. At the center of this effort is the Community Water Science Framework, a graphically-depicted planning approach that technical providers use to guide groups through the journey from data collection to civic action, an approach derived from the EPA’s citizen science tools and shared by other approaches like the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Monitoring. Data quality, management, and analysis are critical parts of the Framework, ensuring that outcomes are based on documented practices that produce data of known accuracy for a given purpose. This metadata helps other scientists and managers reuse the data for their own purposes, a critical part of complying with the FAIR data principles.

Leveraging the Internet of Water for Open Data Sharing

The technology, infrastructure, and protocols for open water data are being jointly developed by numerous federal, state, academic, NGO, corporate, and international organizations, including partners in the Water Data Collaborative. The Commons, the Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic SciencesIzaak Walton League, and the Internet of Water (the organization devoted to implementing the concept of the internet of water) are partners building application programming interfaces, data hubs, and the digital infrastructure that help communities and organizations use and share their data. At a national level, the Clean Water Hub provides a data sharing portal for community organizations to share monitoring data, similar to the DataStream data sharing portal for Canadian and transboundary waters.

In contrast with these water measurements made from single samples, other community-based water monitoring uses autonomous sensors to measure around the clock and share data in real-time. Conveying these large datasets to the web in a way that the public can find it and access the data in an interoperable way requires additional sophistication. That’s where the Monitor My Watershed Data Sharing Portal comes in. Over 100 organizations are streaming millions of water measurements per month into this open source resource. Maintained by Stroud Water Research Center and LimnoTech, Monitor My Watershed is the largest open environmental IoT service in the internet of water.

Open Hardware Expands Opportunities for Community-led Water Science

The Water Data Collaborative’s technical service providers support open hardware for water science, particularly the training, education, and peer-to-peer exchange required to make it grow and thrive. One of these services is EnviroDIY, an initiative of Stroud Water Research Center, that provides resources, training, and open source hardware like the Mayfly Data Logger. EnviroDIY is just one part of the larger water-focused open hardware community, which includes programs like Public Labs and many others, that promote DIY open hardware. These efforts span a broad spectrum in how DIY, open hardware, and proprietary hardware can be combined to collect water data for different goals and outcomes. The Water Data Collaborative helps guide community groups on how to adopt DIY, open hardware methods for collecting the quality of water data they need to achieve their outcomes.

How You Can Help Strengthen these Open Solutions

The convergence of open data and open hardware technologies with national training and mentoring resources is enabling participatory water monitoring efforts to take a quantum step forward in the impact their data have on water science in the US. However, every accomplishment leads to new priorities. First, funding is needed to support the national network of technical service providers who apply coordinated and consistent help to community organizations seeking to elevate the quality and impact of their water data (following the Water Data Collaborative’s model). Second, national leadership is needed to promote the best (and standardized) practices by which professional water research scientists engage with community scientists in water data collection, management, analysis, and sharing. Third, easy-to-use digital tools are needed for community scientists to manage the quality of the water data they share, particularly for continuously-streaming water data from environmental IoT devices.

All of us have a role to play. If you are a community scientist or water monitoring organization who needs help using any of these resources, reach out and ask for it on the Mainstem Network. If you are a water scientist at a public or private water agency or institute, keep up with the latest developments in the nation’s water information infrastructure at the Internet of Water. If you are a policy maker or environmental manager, attend the National Monitoring Conference to learn how open data and open hardware are transforming the water sector. This network of organizations and resources supporting community science is transformational for addressing water pollution, and the multi-faceted and collaborative approach is a model for addressing environmental issues more broadly.

This article was originally published by the Journal of Open Hardware on Medium.

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1 year ago

Great to have the overview and direction. The creators of Open Hardware do need support in understanding what it takes to design, manufacture and sell the hardware, and also the community to do it smartly – open source reviews.
I would also suggest encouraging Crowd Source of the QA and the end measurement instruments. For a combined package of hardware and software, how to allow for easy regression testing – open source QA proof it still is operational. A lot of dance steps to grow over time.

Reply to  Scott Ensign
1 year ago

Gosh complex – it was great in the above all the linkages – reviews technically to my mind are features, and synergy in using them. Seems to me reviews can be on how to use (introducing to a new audience), teach basics (IHMO that is core MS), AND how to scale . One option for projects might be Hackster.io, hackday.io. Standards discussion, can be useful, possibly separated into user visible and embedded  equipment standards – measurement traceability of sensors and influence like water temperature with analog and SDI-12/RS485 – and component standards like IEEE 802.11 (Ethernet WiFi), Cellular CAT-M1, LoRa WAN, , USB OTG – which all have hardware and software.  
Synergy with other “standards” pjrc.com Teensy3., SAMDxx Adafruit , sparkfun, seeed, Arduino.cc would have potential leverage, but there is chasm with the AVR1284 in leveraging higher level software. I designed with mega2560 in 2008, and I thought AVR was superseded until finding Mayfly in 2018. For IoT the software standards are with mqtt, though it’s a component middle ware. Then there are process “best management” standards which evolve per industry and organization … opening it for discussion with some thoughts posted here …

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