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Mobile Apps for Water Stats

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Two international Tisch Summer Fellows are working in Peru to develop a simple, community-based system to collect data about water usage and climate in the country's Central Andes.

Kevin Smith in Peru

At the intersection of science and community, where technology meets citizen engagement, lies fertile ground for innovative approaches and solutions to some of the most pressing environmental challenges affecting people and nations around the world.

That is the guiding spirit behind an exciting project undertaken by Laura Read and Kevin Smith, two Civil & Environmental Engineering PhD students at Tufts who are working in Peru to develop a simple, community-based system to collect data about water usage and climate in the upper Andes. Tisch College is supporting their work through our international Tisch Summer Fellows program.

Read and Smith are part of the Water Diplomacy program at Tufts, an interdisciplinary initiative that brings together students and scholars from various disciplines to tackle multifaceted issues from diverse perspectives. “The idea is to cross-train us in the field that we are not familiar with,” says Smith. “So as an engineer, learning more about the economic and social dimensions of water; or if you already have the public policy background, learning about the more scientific issues.”

That impulse to bridge the social and the scientific led them to develop a project in Peru. Having worked on several initiatives in Peru over the past six years, Read was aware of the myriad water issues faced by residents and farmers in Peru’s Central Andes.

The Problem and the Project

“There’s every problem you can imagine,” says Read. “There’s contaminated water from mining and from natural contamination of glacier-exposed rocks; there’s water availability issues during the summer when there’s no rain and they don’t have any storage. You name it; there are some big challenges.”

Read and Smith decided to focus especially on water availability in order address this growing concern and to help quantify the anecdotal evidence being presented by the Peruvians who are affected.

“The community felt that they were feeling the effects of climate change, or even just general issues of having less water than usual, but despite there being a collective community group that is acknowledged by the government, in order to get any assistance they need to demonstrate a technical need,” explains Smith.

“Everybody recognizes the importance of collecting water and climate data in this area because things are changing so fast, and there really aren’t any weather stations that are collecting this type of data in communities,” adds Read.

Instead of focusing on expensive, complicated equipment, Read and Smith are leveraging the existing infrastructure: particularly ubiquity of basic cell phones and the region’s 2G cellular network. They set up basic stations with rain gauges and other sensors at key locations, allowing any local resident to send a simple text message with that station’s ID number and its data reading. A program will match the ID number to its corresponding location and input the data into a database, where it can be stored and studied.

While the technology is straightforward, it remains an ambitious project that relies heavily on the community’s engagement. “That’s definitely more challenging than the technical part,” says Read, whose years-long experience in the country has helped her form some of the connections that will be vital to the project’s success. “When you work in a country like Peru, there’s a lot of face time: it’s a country of showing up. Maybe you show up to a meeting and you don’t feel like anything happens, but next time that you go back people remember you, and that is half of the work,” she adds.

Indeed, Read and Smith have formed connections with local leaders, teachers, and university students who are eager to get involved and help, not just to carry the work forward, but mold it in a way that best adapts to the local context.

“People are really excited and enthusiastic. It’s just a question of can we set up our system to work within their needs,” says Read. “We can set up a system based on how we would operate it and how we would run it, but that is not necessarily the best for how someone else in a country like Peru is going to use and operate it.”

Her partner concurs: “This has been developed in prototype form, but what we’re really interested in seeing is how the community decides to change that and adapt it to how it actually should work,” adds Smith.

Future Possibilities

Beyond addressing a significant community need in Peru, Read and Smith are likewise excited about the technical and academic implications of their work. “Ultimately we are most concerned with demonstrating some sort of prototype, technically, that we can write about publically so that other communities can be inspired to try it,” he says.

Smith is also particularly interested in the social element of their work. He recently attended the Tisch College Summer Institute of Civic Studies to further explore the possible role of deliberation, community dialogue, and consensus on fields like water management, and hopes to contribute to the literature on that topic as part of his thesis.

For her part, Read is especially excited about the many potential applications of these and similar methods and technologies to transform her field. “I just see mobile technology as this low-hanging fruit for citizen science in particular, because it’s an easy to use technology that is accessible all over Peru and other developing countries,” she says.