During my first few weeks working at Waterkeeper, I attended the OCSI Infrastructure Forum – a water-related conference with Krystyn. At this conference, attendees were asked to engage in Q&A activity. Basically, we were tasked to write down questions and give them away to other attendees to read aloud. So, with a big blue smelly marker on an orange piece of A4 paper, I wrote down my seemingly innocent question.
Quite simply, my question read: “Where is my favorite place to swim in Toronto?”
The reaction I received was eye-opening.
As the other attendees read my question aloud, I noticed their eyes grew wider and their manner less certain – some even started to laugh nervously. One attendee thought that I had made a mistake and proceeded to substitute Toronto with a different location. In turn, my eyes grew wider. Mistake? No, I did not make a mistake – Toronto was exactly what I meant.
Why did these well-educated Torontonians react this way and what does this have to do with water quality? Unsurprisingly, it has everything to do with water quality.
Water quality in Toronto is a topic wherein perception has become a type of reality. While Toronto's beaches earn world-class status with prestigious Blue Flag Awards, the perception that Toronto’s waters are unswimmable somehow persists.
In a world where data is increasingly expected to form the basis for our daily decisions, why do we continue to perceive the state of our lake – our very source of drinking water – without considering the hard (and current) evidence?
The former is LOW’s app for beach goers. The latter is a platform for water sampling at the citizen level. The makers of these apps met for the first time one year ago, at the Aquahacking event hosted by Fondation de Gaspe Beaubien. Swim Guide creator Dylan Neild was a featured speaker. Water Rangers won the competition.
With Water Rangers’ impending launch, this is an exciting time for Kat Kavanagh - creator of Water Rangers. According to Kavanagh, “Water Rangers is a platform where we import open data about water quality in lakes and rivers, and then encourage citizen-scientists to enter in data too.” The types of data include visual observations such as animals, invasive species, photos, pollution notes; or more in depth such as pH, temperature, e-coli, and phosphorous.
As Executive Director, Kavanagh created this platform after she performed water quality tests with her father. She found the process to be complex and unintuitive and decided to do something to make it easier for all citizens interested in water quality.
Water Rangers is a tool for citizens to easily collect data and understand it. As Kavanagh explains, “data on our lakes, rivers, and streams should be available, accessible, and understandable. Right now, water quality data is scattered everywhere.”
Kavanagh’s concern is common and shared by various individuals and organisations alike. Universities around the world are addressing this problem by offering free online courses to better understand and communicate data. According to the University of Toronto, “to cope effectively [in modern day life], every informed citizen must be statistically literate.”
For its official launch this week, Water Rangers has partnered with Ottawa Riverkeeper. The two partners will launch the platform in combination with the Riverwatch training program. In short, Water Rangers will provide Riverwatch volunteers with the know-how to collect, analyze, and understand water quality.
Similar to how my question at the conference opened eyes, Water Rangers can act as a tool to open eyes to water quality data. With open eyes, we can be informed citizens and let our unfounded perceptions of our waterbodies give way to well-founded knowledge.
This is what swimmable, drinkable, and fishable waters require. This is what swimmable, drinkable, fishable waters are all about. By collecting and understanding water quality data, we can protect our waterbodies. So, instead of perceiving water quality, let’s go get our hands dirty and start collecting some hard evidence.