I have been in and out of the Public Lab community for quite a while, but my primary work has been in youth education with a focus on creative technology. I am excited to have this opportunity to spend a couple of months working more directly on community/civic science and environmental monitoring.
Because my background is primarily in technology and education rather than environmental monitoring or community organizing, I want to start by asking some questions about collecting and using water quality data. Water quality monitoring around oil and gas pollution is obviously a very large topic so one of the first things I want to do during this fellowship is to try to narrow the scope of our work to find a few topics that are worth investigating more deeply.
Simply: if we are going to develop and document the creation and use of tools for data collection, I want to have some sense of what kind of water quality data people have found useful to collect and what uses they have put this data to.
As part of the fellowship onboarding process I was given a set of useful background reading on water quality monitoring and oil and gas pollution.
I found An Introduction to Community Based Water Monitoring from the Knowing Our Water Project and Making the Most of Air Monitoring from the Fair Tech Collective to be particularly helpful in clarifying some of my thoughts and giving some insight into how data collection can be made useful to communities, environmentalists, and activists as well as provoking. This reading also helped me formulate some more concrete questions about how we want to approach DIY monitoring tools and hardware as part of this fellowship and beyond.
I am listing some of these questions along with partial answers/thoughts below. I will also make separate "question" posts and link to them from here. I would very much appreciate feedback and criticism of my answers as well as more answers and further details - these questions are very far from my areas of expertise!
I can think of three general reasons that people and organizations collect this kind of environmental data.
a) To answer _personal/community _questions: Is it safe to drink our water? Swim in this stream? Eat this fish that we caught? Are there certain times of year or kinds of events (such a rainstorms) that change these answers?
b) To advocate to a third party: Can we push for changing regulations, collect data to contradict an industry report that we don't believe, show that contamination is happening?
c) Curiosity/education/knowledge: Sometimes we aren't trying to do anything specific with information, but we want to have it for the sake of knowledge or we want to make it available because we suspect that someone else might want it. Making instrumentation and collecting data is an experience that helps people build technical confidence and data-literacy, both of which are valuable in lots of contexts, including environmental advocacy, even if the data itself is not.
On the one hand, DIY sensing seems well-suited to answering personal questions because you are your own audience so you don't have to worry about formatting your data or constructing your experiment to meet the standards of a third-party.
On the other hand, the variability in the quality and calibration of many low-cost sensors makes the data from DIY instrumentation hard to interpret in isolation without an active community of other people using the same tools and techniques.
The worst case scenario for using DIY data collection for making personal decisions is that data from a poorly calibrated or misused instrument provides you a false sense of safety. I don't think this risk outweighs the possible value of personal/community data collection but it is worth considering and minimizing when thinking about tools, experiences, and methods.
3) What kinds of water quality data do we want to capture in order to investigate the effects of the oil and gas industries?
"Groups trained by ALLARM and other service providers typically monitor conductivity, temperature, water depth, and the presence of radionuclides associated with shale formations such as barium and strontium. These core indicators are basic signatures of changes in water quality. But other groups also monitor for pH, dissolved oxygen, metals, chlorides and many other parameters that might point to specific causes of watershed impacts."
The Knowing Our Waters project has also produced A Guide to Water Monitoring Protocols which I have not yet read deeply.
4) What kinds of water quality data can we accurately collect using DIY techniques and inexpensive equipment?
Public Lab community members have been working with and developing at least two major sensor platforms/data-loggers designed around water quality.
The KnowFlow -- "KnowFlow is designed for environmental activists who wants to monitor water quality and get real time data. Now it can monitor 5 parameters: Temperature, pH, ORP, Electronic conductivities, Dissolved Oxygen."
and the Riffle -- "The Riffle is a collection of designs that take an open source approach to water monitoring, with the intent of making gathering water information easier and more accessible. "