Scientists use iPhone app to collect creek data

IBM computer scientist Christine Robson snaps a photo of debris she spotted in a tributary of Arroyo Creek near IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose. IBM's new Creek Watch app for the iPhone is in final beta testing and should be available to the public sometime in September. It allows the public to report trash, water levels and flow rate to water districts.
August 30, 2010 7:38:55 PM PDT
With millions of Americans walking around with smart phones, scientists and environmentalists see a great opportunity to enlist the help of the public to become data collectors. A team of computer scientists at IBM's Almaden Research Center in San Jose is in the final beta testing of a mobile application that will help water districts monitor debris and water quality of creeks.

Called Creek Watch, the application soon will be downloadable for free onto iPhones. Then, as phone users hike or walk along creeks, they can send data about what they observe and send camera photos as well. Specific observations requested are visible trash, flow rate and water level. The GPS built into the iPhone provides location information. With the click of a button, the report is uploaded to a server in real time.

Water district officials say such data collection is growing important as a new requirement takes effect by 2014 to reduce the level of trash loading from storm drains by 40 percent. Enlisting the help of the public to report conditions will be helpful.

While walking along a tributary of Arroyo Creek in San Jose Monday morning, ABC7 spotted an empty brown glass bottle. IBM computer scientist Christine Robson took a photo on her iPhone and filled out a simple checklist so the problem will be reported.

What Robson and her team are doing is capitalizing on a new phenomenon called "crowd sourcing." People with smart phones are out and about, and each one could be tapped into reporting conditions to create a useful database for water districts. A major problem officials face is access to creeks that lie next to private property. Individuals with access to non-public areas could help gather useful data.

Robson says this is only the beginning of how mobile phone applications will be able to help gather data for other environmental purposes, such as air quality.

The Creek Watch app is undergoing final beta testing, and once approved by Apple, it should be downloadable from their App Store in about a month.


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