The Environment Report
8:57 am
Tue June 25, 2013

There are 7 places in Michigan where you can text data to scientists

If you’ve ever wanted to get involved in science but thought it sounded like a lot of work, now all you have to do is send a text.

Chris Lowry is an assistant professor of geology at the University at Buffalo. He’s the co-creator of CrowdHydrology. You can think of it as crowdsourcing information about water.

“So basically how this works is we have some giant rulers that are set up in streams and there’s a little sign on the top of the ruler that says ‘please text us the water level’ and people who are walking by these signs with their mobile phones can look at the ruler and make a measurement off that ruler of what the water level would be at that particular time of the day and send us a text message," he says.

Then, the data you enter goes into an online database.

"And about five minutes after they send in that text message there’s a point on the plot that appears on our CrowdHydrology web page,” Lowry says.

The project started in New York state, and it's recently grown into Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan. There are seven sites in Michigan so far, most of them near Lansing. There's also a site at the Kalamazoo Nature Center.

Lowry says they're hoping to learn quite a bit from the data people text to them.

"We don't always have the best grasp of how stream levels are changing within a watershed and it's actually kind of an expensive measurement to make in terms of personnel..."

“We don’t always have the best grasp of how stream levels are changing within a watershed and it’s actually kind of an expensive measurement to make in terms of personnel, and so what we’re doing with this is we’re creating a low-cost way to measure water levels for us to understand things like how a storm pulse may move through a watershed, or during drought, what happens along the length of a stream,” he says.

Citizen science

Lowry says there's a public outreach component to their project too.

"That allows us to engage citizens and for them to say 'hey, I can contribute to science but at the same time I can also learn something for myself,'" he says.

Lowry acknowledges they do run the risk of somebody typing in the wrong numbers.

“I don’t think we have any evidence of someone messing with our data, but we’ve definitely found times when there’s a measurement that’s out of place. If you’re texting, you know, I have fat thumbs, so as I’m texting I might not quite hit the right number," he says.

"There’s nothing we can really do about it, other than just say, these are data collected from citizen scientists, so as a result you have to realize there are some error bars associated with it."

Lowry was inspired to create CrowdHydrology after finding out about a project in California that asks people to report roadkill.

The data on CrowdHydrology is available for anyone to use. The website offers up some possibilities:

  • Check the stream condition of your favorite fishing spot
  • Monitor the spring snowmelt
  • Teach students about the hydrologic cycle in your watershed
  • Quantify groundwater and surface water exchange in streams
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