The world of citizen science is exploding.
Increasingly, governments, non-profit organizations, and research institutions are realizing the potential of citizens to help close data gaps when it comes to measuring and monitoring environmental health and change.
As more and more community members take up the task of citizen science, there are many challenges. Questions like:
- How can we store data?
- How can we share data and ensure its accessible and utilized?
- How can we ensure data are robust?
- How can we ensure the instruments we use to measure parameters are both accessible and of good quality?
Water Rangers has been working to address some of these questions.
A non-profit, citizen science-based program, Water Rangers was developed to connect scientists and decision-makers with people who are regularly in the field, like naturalists, recreationists, and environmentalists.
The initiative was borne of AquaHacking--a program that challenges young innovators to develop cleantech solutions to help solve North America’s freshwater issues. Water Rangers was the first winner of the Aquahacking challenge in 2015 and has been growing ever since.
Water Rangers approaches citizen science from various angles: their core product is an open platform that hosts data garnered by citizen scientists. They also offer testing equipment, and have education and outreach programs.
Water Rangers’ platform is a web-based application that allows users around the world to upload water quality data and observations to an interactive map.
Once you sign up for the application, you’ll see a map like this:
The green circles are how many observation sites there are. Once you zoom in a bit, you’ll find something like the image below, where the blue pins are the individual observation sites.
Water Rangers is based in Ottawa, and has a partnership with Ottawa Riverkeeper, so it’s not surprising that most of the data points are in Eastern Ontario. But, there are no limits to who can upload data to the platform. There are data from observation sites across Canada, and even from users in India, Brazil and the Açores Islands. There are currently over 700 users on Water Rangers’ platform who have collectively made some 20,000 observations.
When I spoke with Jennifer Valentine, Water Rangers’ Outreach Director, she told me that the application was developed to be as interactive and user-friendly as possible. Water Rangers’ team consists of both tech-savvy developers and non-techy water advocates, so between them, they have designed a platform that is quite intuitive to use.
When you click on a blue pin, a dialogue box will pop up on the screen where you can add an observation, report an issue, or view a summary of previous data. Users can define their own forms, choosing from more than 30 parameters like water temperature, conductivity, phosphorus and more. Some users have protocols where they track over ten parameters, while others stick with two or three.
One of the most interesting features on the platform is that the application automatically conducts a trend analysis of samples over time. For example, Ottawa Riverkeeper tests for E. coli at locations around Ottawa and Gatineau alongside other monitoring efforts. Three years of data at the Ruisseau de Brasserie--a tributary to the Ottawa River--shows E. coli counts have been on average 10 times higher than what is considered safe.
By hovering your cursor over the trendline, you can see the date on which observation data was input.
In addition to creating an individual user profile, Water Rangers also lets you create a group. Groups can delineate watersheds or regions of interest, and individual users within that group can ask to be notified when there are new testing results in that area or if someone has reported an issue (like an algal bloom or a pollution event).
The application is fully functional both through a web browser and a mobile app. That means citizen scientists can record results using the good old-fashioned pen and paper and upload results to the web app when they are in front of a computer, or they can immediately upload results to the web app.
The Water Rangers application is completely open, so whatever has been uploaded to the platform can be viewed by anyone, anywhere. It is even possible to download data that has been uploaded at any observation site worldwide.
Water Rangers’ platform can accommodate data garnered by any instruments that can measure any water quality parameters. Although their current form lists 30, their developers can modify the platform to add more parameters.
However, most people don’t have access to freshwater monitoring equipment. So, Water Rangers developed affordable, easy-to-use test kits for citizen scientists. The organization has three types of freshwater monitoring kits that it has distributed to users in Canada and around the world (they also have an ocean kit). Each kit has a different price point; the more expensive kits contain more instruments for measuring more parameters.
Jennifer tells me that although these kits cost a fraction of professional equipment, the quality of data that they gather is comparable. A study with Carleton University researchers showed that Water Rangers’ toolkits deliver quality data.
“Even really expensive pieces of equipment can fail if they are not properly calibrated,” Jennifer explains. The instruments in Water Rangers’ toolkits are basic and require no or minimal calibration.
In order for citizen science to work, monitoring equipment “has to be easy, affordable and accurate,” Jennifer says.
Their kits measure basic water quality parameters and don’t yet offer instruments that can measure pollutant-based parameters (e.g. microorganisms, organic and inorganic chemicals, nutrients, etc.)--although they are currently working with the University of Alberta’s Serpe Group to develop an inexpensive sensor that will enable citizen scientists to test for phosphorus this year. Each kit comes with a field guide that explains how to use the instruments included in the kit. Their website contains more information on the kits, including video training.
Testing, testing (this just got more interesting!)
I wanted to see how the platform and testkit worked myself, so I ordered the freshwater mini toolkit from Water Rangers’ website.
For those who have read my blogs before, you may know that I live across the street from a small urban creek that runs through the city of Kelowna. I’ve observed Mill Creek with great interest in the four years since I’ve lived here. Recent times have been exciting for the little creek: in the past year alone, I’ve seen it flood and run incredibly low. I’ve often wondered how the water quality fares, as there is no publicly-available water quality testing. Mill Creek empties into Okanagan Lake, where I regularly swim and paddle, so I have been meaning to take water quality testing matters into my own hands for a while.
My Water Rangers’ toolkit arrived in the mail about a week after I ordered it. When it first arrived, I was very busy and too intimidated to open it. I expected that I would need to do a lot of background reading and research to understand how to use the instruments.
When I did finally get around to putting it to use, I was pleasantly surprised. The steep learning curve that I was expecting turned out to be a pretty mellow slope. It took about 15 minutes to read my field guide and take inventory of the equipment.
I set up next to the creek and took out my instruments. The kit I ordered allowed me to test for conductivity, total dissolved solids, temperature, pH, alkalinity, chlorine and total hardness. Although I had a slight issue with the plastic cup that is meant for strip tests (I lost it down the creek and felt sad for contributing to plastic pollution), all the instruments were incredibly easy to use.
When I got back in front of my computer, I found the sampling location on the map and uploaded the results to the application. To my delight, I got a badge for the task! I thought that was a pretty clever integration. Oodles of psychology research shows how people are motivated by extrinsic rewards like recognition and belonging. Even though I’m pretty familiar with this research, it still works on me on an emotional level. The second time I uploaded results, I got a “Trainee Location Guardian” badge. I was starting to feel like I was Mill Creek’s water guardian!
“I’m a huge researcher of game psychology and have worked on game design,” Kat Kavanagh, Water Rangers’ Executive Director, told me when I asked her about this.
They have plans to expand this “recognition and belonging” aspect of Water Rangers. Kat tells me they are currently prototyping a Guardians program, “where users have to complete 10 challenges over the summer--including water testing, appreciating nature, learning about invasive species and planting a shoreline.”
More plans are brewing for Water Rangers as a greater number of citizen scientists and organizations take to the platform. The openness and simplicity of Water Rangers’ is what make it so compelling. Whereas science has long been in the hands of the experts, Water Rangers helps to make it available to anyone with basic monitoring equipment.
Even though the tools can deliver quality results, Kat is aware that user error can be an impediment to the rigour of data. That’s why they’re working on tools that can increase the validity of data results without compromising the openness or accessibility of the platform. For example, they are working toward an integration with the mobile app where a phone camera can read the sensors of pH strips, eliminating the need for subjective interpretation.
They are also looking to expand their partnerships and outreach program. They are already working with environmental organizations and Conservation Authorities, and have engaged hundreds of people have with their monitoring kits and application to explore freshwater health for themselves. Future plans are for even more partnerships and public outreach.
Indeed, even though Water Rangers is a place to store and access information, it is also more than that: it is a powerful engagement tool. In that sense, the platform is both an outcome (data products) and process (freshwater engagement). Which is pretty cool, because citizens that are both informed and engaged are a powerful force when it comes to advancing healthy streams, rivers and lakes.
If you are interested in learning more about Water Rangers or how your organization can use it to store water data and engage community members, contact Kat Kavanagh.