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The story of my ITP thesis so far . . .

The story of my ITP thesis so far . . .

March 29th, 2010  |  Published in Design, ITP, Networks, Physical Computing, Technology & Society, Thesis

My work at ITP has explored ways that inexpensive hardware might be applied to help us promote social change, and last year the questions I was asking led me to an important insight: that the water crisis, was an information crisis.  Although the present state of affairs will require billions of dollar invested in infrastructure across the globe, as long as we lack the knowledge of how much water we have and how much of it is drinkable, we won’t be able to take the actions necessary to solve the problem without causing new ones.  I’ve spent the past year immersed in the complexities of the quality issue with the Water Canary project, and decided that this semester would best be spent tackling the issue of scarcity.  Yet scarcity is a far more complex problem than I would have originally thought.  There are many possible reasons why we are running out of water, and although a lot of attention has been paid to overuse and climate change – I considered the land itself plays in maintaining and replenishing the water supply until I encountered the work being done at the Browning Ranch in Johnson City, Texas.  The ranch is doing some unprecedented work in trying to establish how the destruction of the Texas Hill Country’s grasslands has eliminated the land’s natural ability to replenish its water supply when it rains.  I travelled there last spring to see how novel applications of technology might help them conduct their work and research, and what I discovered was that their most basic need, to measure the volume of water flowing in the ranch’s watercourses, had no appropriate existing solution.  The only way to remotely monitor this involved damming the watercourse, effectively transforming the ecosystem to be monitored, and these solutions were prohibitively expensive, ranging between ten and twenty-five thousand dollars.  I could see how the need to monitor was independent of the reason why they were monitoring the water – and that in essence here was an information problem again: no affordable way to know how much water we had.  We discussed the problem at length, and I spent the past year thinking about how we might tackle the problem cheaply and accurately.

So the key to the past semester has been taking the time to better understand the problem, the hydrology and ecology behind it, and what methods I might build, or repurpose to meet the ranch’s needs while keeping an eye to the global significance of a better system for  water monitoring.  My ultimate goal is to make a contribution to the development of the missing link in a water monitoring network taht could be deployed in a variety of settings cheaply.  As it stands, I’ve made some encouraging progress, having established several possible ways to solve the problem, yet the most promising method I’ve found would involve customizing the hardware we’ve been developing on the water canary project to perform a dye tracing test automatically.  The main challenge throughout this process has been ensuring that I’m developing an accurate and adequate understanding of all the variables such a system needs to consider, and Scott Gardner, an environmental scientist who runs the ranch has been my chief advisor on all of these issues.  In its present state, I have completed initial feasibility tests that point to a dye tracing unit as the most promising solution I might be able to provide, and so the goal for the remainder of the semester is going to be duplicating the functionality of dye tracing in a unit of my own.  Since siting is a lower order problem for this, my deliverable will include proposals for how my dye tracing unit might be installed, while exploring the broader applicability of the unit to other scenarios, possibly including how it might be used by the USGS in New York state.

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