The RIFFLE Effect: Public Lab’s New Pilot Water Monitoring Sensor Tool

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RIFFLE cartoon/courtesy of Public Lab

Public Lab announces RIFFLE, a new pilot program and open sensor tool to monitor water quality of Mystic River in Massachusetts.

By definition, a riffle is a “short, relatively shallow and coarse-bedded length of stream over which the stream flows at higher velocity and higher turbulence than it normally does in comparison to a pool.” Similarly, Public Lab is making waves in the DIY and hacker community when it comes to creating tools for environmental exploration and investigation.

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Ben Gamari of Public Lab demonstrates the RIFFLE sensor

Last weekend, I attended a Public Lab “toolshed raising” event in Somerville, MA, wherein local community members come to learn more about the organization, get a demo of their current tools, and work together on projects. There, the Public Lab team announced RIFFLE (Remote Independent Friendly Field-Logger Electronics) (support it here), a new pilot program and tool to monitor the water quality in Mystic River. I’m constantly impressed by the tools they develop (including a DIY spectrometry kit, balloon mapping kit, and modified infrared camera), which all follow the same credo: they are low cost, open source, and easy to build/maintain. At the event, Ben Gamari, one of the RIFFLE developers, expressed the core philosophy of making these tools accessible: “It has to just work.”

The Mystic River in Massachusetts flows from the Mystic Lakes in Winchester and Arlington, through Medford, Somerville (where I live!), Everett, Charlestown and Chelsea, and into Boston Harbor. Though it’s gorgeous to look at and take long runs next to, the Mystic faces serious water quality problems: pollution from leaky sewer pipes, waste disposal sites; excessive nutrients and discharges of raw sewage; fuel hydrocarbons; and road salt. Its Alewife Brook subwatershed is reportedly one of the most contaminated water bodies in Boston, failing to meet state bacteria standards for swimming and boating. Beyond that, the Mystic River watershed received a ‘D’ from the US EPA on its 2012 water quality report card.

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Don Blair showcases RIFFLE’s open source 3D-printed cap

Here’s the challenge. Although several organizations monitor the Mystic, the data are not widely available to the public, nor is current technology available or affordable enough for people to take part in the process. 

The main focus of RIFFLE is developing open hardware alternatives–sensors that you can build at home and use to measure trends (and deviations from them) in temperature, conductivity, and water depth. Ideally, this will enable the local community near the Mystic to assess threats to water quality like industrial pollution, coliform bacteria, road salt, and agriculture runoff. 

RIFFLE is still in its prototype phase, so some more testing and calibration are in its immediate future as well as a distribution strategy; some possible telemetry mods; even considerations to adapt it for STE(A)M–science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

In addition to the actual sensor, Public Lab is developing free, open-source software (accessible offline) for downloading the sensor data to a laptop, as well an open, online platform onto which citizen scientists can upload and share the water quality data that they collect. The plan is for the online platform itself to multitask as a field log, data repository, and community forum.

Imagine–if the water source that you lived by seemed dangerous, and if you and your neighbors had more awareness of the water quality trend in your backyard (whether figuratively or literally), you or they might take action, change your routines, petition for better water quality monitoring, or even move. Using RIFFLE to monitor water quality along the Mystic exemplifies how the citizen science community can rally together in reaction to a local concern. This DIY, crowdsourced approach benefits researchers, water resource managers, and citizen scientists alike.

If you’re in Massachusetts anywhere near the Mystic, get involved. If you’re not in the area, there are other ways to support the project, not mention many other opportunities to participate in water monitoring projects.

Let’s make waves–together.

This post originally appeared on the SciStarter blog.

Images: Public Lab (top), Lily Bui

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The RIFFLE Effect: Public Lab’s New Pilot Water Monitoring Sensor Tool by PLOS Blogs Network, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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