Courtesy Viable Industries.

Viable Industries partner Joshua Sager says he had long wanted to use his developer background in a way that would benefit the environment. He was further motivated after seeing the 2014 chemical spill in the Elk River near Charleston, W.Va., which affected his family in the area. Residents were without drinking water for days while the situation was brought under control.

“That really made me think about the work I was doing,” Sager says. “I wondered ‘can I make an impact on drinking water?’” He’s only been with Viable for about two months, but said even in that short time, he feels like he’s tackled some serious issues close to home.

Crowdsourcing water pollution may not sound like the sexiest concept for a smartphone app, but the team at Viable Industries isn’t interested in hurling cartoon birds into pigs, or crushing candy. Their Water Reporter app is of the long-term, big picture variety,

Traditionally, environmental organizations would look at historical data from bodies of water, which gave them the ability to look back and see anomalies that would let them identify problems, says Viable Industries founder Joshua Powell.  “But if you can put these tools in the hands of citizens, and empower them to help identify problems early, then it allows authorities to do something about the problem,” he says.

The East Liberty-based team of technologists has a primary focus of helping environmentally-oriented organizations use the data they have in useful ways. Powell says often there aren’t enough staff at a nonprofit or government agency to delve into and interpret large amounts of complex data, so that’s where Viable comes in.

The challenge for Lisa Werder Brown, Saw Mill Run Watershed Association coordinator, is that she’s only one person, and Saw Mill Run is 22 miles long. So she’s pleased that it’s the first local water supply to be listed on Water Reporter.

If there are problems like dumping or sediment or other issues that could have a negative impact on the water in Saw Mill Run, it’s hard to get a handle on it right away, she says. And its location along Route 51 has contributed to pollution issues for years.

“We want to engage the public to get real-time data,” Brown says. This isn’t asking unskilled volunteers to go out and take water samples, Brown adds, but to observe and report problems that might not otherwise be immediately discovered.

Courtesy Viable Industries.

Funding for development of the app and outreach efforts came from two main sources, Brown says: a grant from Pennsylvania American Water for about $6,000 and a grant from the Richard King Mellon Foundation of about $35,000. That will fund the app for several years, she adds. The Saw Mill Run Watershed Association is an initiative of Economic Development South, a Brentwood-based nonprofit community and economic development corporation that includes 11 municipalities.

Here’s how Water Reporter works:  After downloading the app, if a user sees or smells something that doesn’t look right, such as dirt and debris on the water, trash near a stream, or a foul odor, they take a picture or a video and upload it to the app. It’s currently only available for use at Saw Mill Run, but Brown says other local agencies are interested in using it on other bodies of water.

A key function of the app addresses the problem of notification, since the average citizen won’t know which authority to call when they see someone dumping garbage in a stream, or if they notice a chemical odor. By reporting issues via Water Reporter, Brown and her team can take the reports and get them to the right agency for remediation, whether that’s the local borough or the Department of Environmental Protection.

Water Reporter was first developed from a partnership between Viable and Chesapeake Commons, a firm comprised of Washington, D.C.-based data specialists, to crowdsource pollution events and other similar problems within the Potomac Watershed. Sager says Viable brought programming expertise to the project, while Chesapeake Commons served as the environmental “glue,” helping with geographic information systems, advocacy and fundraising.

Powell says the app has already had some success, including identifying a cleaning company whose workers illegally dumped cleaning chemicals into a stream.

“We’re hoping that tools like this can allow agencies to identify problems quicker,” Powell says.

Water Reporter is free to download, and is available for Android and Apple devices.

Kim Lyons

Kim Lyons is an award-winning writer and editor who spends way too much time on Twitter. Her experience includes crime, features and business reporting, and she has a huge crush on Pittsburgh. She was...