By Richard Silberman, Writer/Researcher, IBM Communications
San Jose, California, has nearly 30,000 storm drain inlets leading to 1,200 outfalls that pour into 136 miles of creeks and streams. James Downing, one of the city’s three Stormwater Management Program supervisors, helps monitor all of it. He works to keep the water that drains from the city’s streets into all those creeks clean — and keep the city of San Jose compliant with some pretty stringent state and federal water quality regulations.
Big job. Huge responsibility. Luckily, help has arrived in the form of Creek Watch, an iPhone app from IBM Research that empowers citizens to monitor and report on local water conditions.
“We need all the help we can get to protect our watershed. No municipality can do it alone,” Downing said. “Volunteers have long helped the city with various environmental projects and now Creek Watch offers a new opportunity for countless citizens to collect and share meaningful water quality information.”
Confidence in crowdsourcing
In San Jose, as in much of the western U.S., storm water drains from the streets directly into waterways without any sort of filtration or treatment. That means that anything falling on the street — such as trash, garden pesticides, motor oil or pet waste — goes straight to the local creek when it rains. Citizens using Creek Watch can make a valuable contribution in helping pinpoint pollution that may be contaminating this water, so the city can take steps to get it cleaned up.
“Creek Watch represents an inexpensive way for us to get data that can make a real difference in how we manage our environment,” Downing said. “But what really excites me is that Creek Watch helps people feel connected to their natural environment and can help move our citizenry toward greater stewardship.”
Downing practices what he preaches, often taking his 10-year-old son out to record water conditions. “He loves it,” Downing said. “He shoots the photos, evaluates the water and enters the data. Creek Watch is a great teaching tool.”
Devoted to water for work and play
Downing’s love of water dates back to his childhood. “Water has been a part of my life all my life,” he said. He studied aquatic biology in college, worked in a marine lab in graduate school and was a research diver for the California Department of Fish and Game.
Today, when he’s not protecting water on behalf of San Jose’s one million citizens, he enjoys it as an avid surfer and a volunteer diver at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Downing has high hopes for Creek Watch and plans to promote its use through his department’s citizen monitoring outreach program. Looking ahead, he hopes future versions of the app will let users record data such as water temperature, pH, turbidity and dissolved oxygen.
“All it takes is a simple kit like those provided by World Water Monitoring Day that anyone can use to measure these parameters,” Downing said. “The ability to use Creek Watch and its crowdsourcing capabilities to gather and share that level of scientific data would give us an unprecedented picture of our watershed’s condition and let us take highly informed steps to make our water cleaner.”
Creek Watch is a free iPhone app developed by IBM Research that helps you protect your local watershed. Just take snapshots of any waterway you see and record your impression of water level, flow and trash. The app automatically uploads users’ data to a public repository, where local water boards can use it to track pollution, manage water resources and plan environmental programs. Creek Watch brings the power of crowdsourcing to water conservation, empowering you to help keep your community’s water clean.