Rivers in the United States are essential to sustain lives of both nonhuman species and of human societies. Urban areas rely heavily upon their nearby rivers and watersheds for their survival and yet citizens are often unaware of inextricable linkages between societal and river functions. One way to overcome this lack of awareness is by exploring new avenues for engagement with the general public. In this project, we use three fields for this engagement (science, art, and technology) to produce a river awareness tool that creates connections between citizens and their watersheds through visceral and technological interfaces.
The target area is the White River watershed, which is entirely contained within the state of Indiana and encompasses nearly 30,000 km2 in the central and southern portions of the state including the metropolitan region of Indianapolis. We developed a mobile device application called “Raindrop” that uses geographic information systems (GIS) and mobile device GPS technology to map a raindrop’s path from a user’s home to the river and identifies the various flow paths and pollutant constituents transported by this water along the way. Physical markers along the White River designed by an artist on the project team allows for the virtual features of the application to be grounded in physical space.
The use of Raindrop to connect users with their urban watershed is shown to have significant promise for widespread application. A number of key advantages of using this technology over traditional forms of outreach are enumerated below. First, by collaborating with a nationally renowned artist both in the design of the application and for physical markers, the audience for Raindrop is greatly expanded and interesting dynamics between the scientific and artist members of the general public are developed. Second, in urban areas the use of mobile devices and handheld Web technology are ubiquitous and thus the information can be conveyed to an audience in a form that is familiar and relevant. By pulling the mobile device users into physical spaces along the river, the experience is enhanced further. Finally, the ability to concisely display essential watershed, weather, and climate information using iconography, predefined data analysis, and dynamic programming allows for the application to run quickly and usability to be optimized. Future work will focus on end user evaluation and replicability in other urban watersheds around the country.