The WeSenseIt project: crowdsourcing information on water

As you may have heard, there’s quite a bit of talk out about the role that citizens can play in science and decision-making. If you think about it, I’m sure you’ve heard of smartphone apps that use people’s individual knowledge to build collective knowledge and eventually services for others. Think of apps for informing about accidents on the highway, or for reporting a fallen tree in your neighbourhood, or for giving your report of the weather in your area… the list of ideas is endless. If we could harness (and foster) these individual acts of solidarity to have better information about our environment, the fields of science, decision-making and citizen empowerment can all benefit.

The spheres of influence of the citizen observatory of water in WeSenseIt (©WeSenseIt consortium, 2012)

The spheres of influence of the citizen observatory of water in WeSenseIt (©WeSenseIt consortium, 2012)

The European institutions have realised the potential that this concept poses and as such launched the first call for proposals to research on the subject of citizen science in 2012. Five projects were funded by this call for proposals, each of them with a different thematic focus although all with citizens at the centre of their work.

The projects are WeSenseIt, Cobweb, CITI-SENSE, Citclops, and OMNICIENTIS. These projects are providing the first foundation and experience of how citizens can be involved as key providers of data and fundamental participants of decision-making processes.

In the case of Starlab, we are one of the partners involved in WeSenseIt, a citizen observatory of water. This is a 4-year research project that started in October of 2012 and will end in 2016. The project aims at allowing citizens and communities to become active stakeholders in capturing and communicating information related to water. This engagement will empower these citizens to have a say in their community and help decision-makers access information that was previously absent allowing them to fill gaps in their knowledge.

The concept of a heterogeneous citizen-based observatory of water combining traditional measurements and operational monitoring with citizen-supported observation and information. © Solomatine, Chacon-Hurtado, Segura, UNESCO-IHE

The concept of a heterogeneous citizen-based observatory of water combining traditional measurements and operational monitoring with citizen-supported observation and information.
© Solomatine, Chacon-Hurtado, Segura, UNESCO-IHE

The WeSenseIt project revolves around 3 case studies in different locations around Europe, where water affects people’s lives in different ways: Doncaster (UK), Alto Adriatico (Italy) and Delftland (the Netherlands).

Each of these case studies has a different angle in the way they involve the citizens in their area and in their issues with water. Flooding is an issue in both Doncaster and Alto Adriatico. Involving citizens in areas frequently affected by floods can provide timely information to emergency responders on the status of watercourses in the event of a flood and therefore can help authorities to take better-informed decisions on evacuation efforts. The Delftland case study is mostly centred on involving citizens in providing additional information on water resources and water infrastructures (such as dykes) in a country that has some of the most advanced water monitoring systems in the world.

Our project provides citizens and authorities a wide range of ways of providing and receiving more information on water. The project involves a number of SMEs who develop different types of sensors (rain sensors, water flow sensors, soil moisture sensors, river level sensors, smartphone apps, among others), which with a larger or smaller involvement of citizens can provide additional (previously unavailable) information. In addition to this, other partners in the projects are also conducting important research on how information posted by people on social networks (Twitter and Facebook mainly), can be used to gain additional information about water-related emergencies and even detect and predict certain phenomena occurring.

As far as Starlab’s contribution to the WeSenseIt project, we have provided a set of soil moisture sensors to each of the case studies, which have been installed in relevant locations to monitor different phenomena. In some cases, the intention is to have a better idea of the level of saturation of the soil and to which extent rainfall or rising water level is responsible for this. In other cases our sensors have been installed on the levies that line the riverbanks, to have an early warning of rising river level and provide more data for the hydrological modelling of certain catchments. So, even though the main target sector for our soil moisture is agriculture, they can actually be installed just as well for other purposes. Our next steps in the project will be to provide satellite data-derived information on soil moisture and vegetation health, which combined with data from our soil moisture sensors, should help farmers become more aware of their use of water and provide them information to use it more efficiently.

The installation of one of Starlab's soil moisture sensors in agricultural fields in the Alto Adriatico case study (© E. Solà)

The installation of one of Starlab’s soil moisture sensors in agricultural fields in the Alto Adriatico case study (© E. Solà)

If you’re interested in learning more about the WeSenseIt project, head over to the project website (http://www.wesenseit.eu) and the common citizen observatories website (http://www.citizen-obs.eu). And if you’d like more information on our technology, don’t hesitate to leave us a message in the comments section or have a closer look at our products and solutions for water and agriculture.

In relation to this I had the honour of being interviewed on Spanish National Radio last week to talk about the WeSenseIt project (the interview is in Spanish). If you’re interested you can listen to it on the following link: http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/audios/europa-abierta/europa-abierta-03-09-14/2739205/ (after minute 34:30 approximately).

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