If we can have real-time diagnostics of the weather and the stock market, why can’t we have them for, say, the environment, or public health?
If Lab Team member José Gómez-Márquez has his way, soon we will be able to do exactly that through crowdsourcing. But first he must experiment with a prototype: meet the Kleiner Wassersensor (the Little Water Sensor), a DIY water testing kit José developed as one of his Lab City Projects with his entourage of colleagues and students.* This kit is currently being distributed to people all over Berlin.The test is incredibly simple: the user is provided with five pieces of litmus-like paper which measure various aspects of water. He or she attaches those to a strip of double-sided tape on the Kleiner Wassersensor card in the order specified in the directions. The user then submerges the card in some sort of water. For the first trial, this time around, “water” can mean anything—from a natural body of water in the city like the Spree or Müggelsee to the water coming out of a shower head.
The user waits a minute to let the magic paper do its color-changing thing, and then snaps a photo of the card on a smartphone. Et voilà—with a little help from the user, the information is analyzed on the spot and mapped.
According to José, this is the first time he and his lab at MIT are aware of that a diagnostic has been combined with a mobile phone app to provide real-time data collection. Why does this matter? Well, two reasons: first, like any type of crowdsourcing, it puts the power of data collection in the hands of everyday people. “Our hope is that, with the Kleiner Wassersensor we can make sure that the crowdsourced, DIY versions of those diagnostics are much more democratized than the $5000 one sitting in a box in the city water office,” he says.
This is not just about water, either. Ultimately the idea is that the same technique could be used to test for all sorts of things, from environmental pollutants to highly infectious diseases. It would enable people to collect the kind of data they want and need, not just that which the government or research “experts” collect, if and when they decide to collect it.
But that democratization also massively speeds up the process of that data collection. By way of example, José points to the cholera epidemic that killed thousands in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. If the people themselves had been doing tests on the ground that allowed for instant analysis—real time epidemiology, José calls it—the epidemic could likely have been identified far before it reached a crisis point.
This, of course, is many steps beyond where the “soft stroked” prototype, as Jose calls it, currently is. The “model one” Kleiner Wassersensor tests for more Berlin-relevant qualities like acidity, water hardness, and bacterial presence—all things that José says, in the relevant perspective, should not be discounted.
“‘Serious’ scientists don’t think these are interesting questions. But from a participatory-science point of view, and an everyday-living point of few, frankly it does matter what kind of water you have to put in your espresso maker so that it doesn’t ruin it, or why your shampoo doesn’t lather properly in your shower,” he says. “We’re here to make interesting questions out of what everyday people find [to be] interesting questions.”
*Aydin Arpa, Lee Gehrke, Irene Bosch, Ben Eck, Madeline Hickman, Steph Cooke, and Emilee Johnson all participated in this project.
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Photos: by Christine McLaren