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Nationwide research project enlists public to help collect water data

Mobile technology has created some new opportunities for citizen scientists to play an active part in research, especially with tighter budgets. Now a nationwide project is enlisting the public to gather up-to-date information on water levels.

If you walk through the trails of Tifft Nature Preserve on the edge of Lake Erie you will see a sheltered information sign in front of a small lake that says “What’s the water height today? Text us.” UB Assistant Professor Chris Lowry explains.

“There’s this diorama of pictures that says you need to find where the ruler and based off of this ruler you need to look at the water level would be, and on then on top of this ruler is a phone number you need to text and what you need to do is text the station identification, So this station identification at Tifft is NY1009 and then you need to just type in the height,” says Lowry.

Lowry says he came up with the tracking system after reading about researchers crowdsourcing similar data on levels of roadkill. The result is the ‘Crowdhydrology’ project.

“The last couple of summers have been really dry and so you want to know how the water may hit the land surface and move through that water shed and how the water may be lower or higher than normal. If you’re a canoe-er you want to know what the water level is to know if your canoe floats. If you’re a fisherman you want to know what the water level is if the fish are going to be able to get into the pools that you like to fish in,” says Lowry.

Lowry’s partner on the project is a Research Hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey700 miles away in Wisconsin. Michael Fienen wrote the computer program that collects all those informative text messages. He had to make sure the program could deal with the way most smart phones like to auto-correct our texts.

“Sometimes people will miss the decimal place if they’re trying to type in 1.2 it will be 12.0. So I found actually some little bits of software to do what’s called a fuzzy search. It allows us to try to rank the similarity of a message to something we’re looking for,” says Fienen.

New York State is home base for the Crowdhydrology project and there’s around 10 measurement sites scattered upstate. There are also sites in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa.  Fienen says the USGS put $20,000 into the project.

“…but that actually went into printing the signs and then some of that funding was a grant that went to Chris Lowry and some of his students for some of their time going around and installing,” says Fienen.

Lowry says crowdhydrology is only a supplement to the water measurements the USGS already gathers, and the program’s become even more useful given recent cutbacks on the number of water monitoring stations nationwide. Lowry says it’s also fostering community interest in science.

“You take your kids out here, you make a measurement and then 5 minutes later it’s there and you can see the graph and you can see how it changes. So one of the interesting graphs is from Beaver Meadows, the Audubon Society’s site. You see when we first put the gauge in the water levels are fairly low and then water levels start increasing through time. That actually is occurring, because a beaver has come in and dammed up the river. So you have this wonderful record through time of water levels and you have this cool-like history,” says Lowry.

Lowry says they’re keeping the project deliberately low-tech, because you don’t need a smartphone to text the water levels. The group also plans to expand the number of crowdhydrology sites across the nation. 

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