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DontFlushMe: A NYC sewage level alert system
Code brown! DontFlushMe, an Internet-based alert system created to curb the discharge of raw sewage into NYC's waterways, texts potential flushers and notifies them when it's safe or unsafe to do so.
Wed, Jun 15, 2011 at 09:00 PM
Toilet handle. (Image: Genista/Flickr. All other images:DontFlushMe)
Back in April around Earth Day, I blogged about the fabulous NYC-based “online microphilanthropy” organization ioby (“in our backyards”) and mentioned a few intriguing projects involved with this unique fundraising platform — think Kickstarter but for community-based, action-oriented green do-goodery instead of creative projects — that's mission is to remind us that the “environment” is “not just the Amazon rain forest or the Arctic glaciers” but is our own in-need-of-TLC neighborhoods.
All of the ongoing ioby projects that I noticed back in April were most certainly worthy of financial support, but I did notice one reoccurring, not-too-surprising theme throughout many of them: gardening, composting and urban greening projects. Well, there's a new ioby project called DontFlushMe that has absolutely nothing to do with gardening and has everything to do with topics that seem to be rather popular around these parts: stinky sewage, toilets and human waste.
Poop-appeal aside, the goal of DontFlushMe is rather serious: to curb the egregious amount of raw sewage that New Yorkers flush into the city's waterways during Combined Sewage Overflows (CSOs), events where the sewer system is overloaded and wastewater has nowhere else to go but out. According to DontFlushMe creator Leif Percifield, about 27 billion gallons of raw sewage is pumped into the New York Harbor each year because of CSOs; wastewater discharge is the top source of water pollution in the harbor. DontFlushMe enables “residents to understand when the overflows happen and reduce their wastewater production before and during an overflow event.”
How’s Percifield going about this?
Through strategically placed, wastewater-measuring sewer sensors connected to a “wide-ranging alert network” that lets sewage-sensitive New Yorkers know when CSO levels are high and if they should really let it mellow. When a “code brown” alert is sounded and an overflow event is underway, DontFlushMe users will receive a text message telling them so.
Or, DontFlushMe participants can check wastewater levels on a website, via Twitter, or by calling a dedicated phone number for real-time updates. Percifield, a technologist and designer, has also developed an Internet-connected light bulb that changes colors based on local sewer levels.
The simple sensor that I am prototyping utilizes an arduino, a proximity sensor, and a cellphone. The idea is that the proximity sensor will measure the water level at the CSO and transmit this data, via the cellphone, to a database. This information will then be shared to the users of the system.
Percifield, an Atlanta native who grew up well-aware of that city’s sewage problems, moved to NYC less than a year ago from Santa Fe, N.M. — where he was a media developer at Los Alamos National Laboratory — to attend graduate school at Parsons. Already, he's extremely intimate with the Big Apple’s wastewater pollution problem, specifically in and around Brooklyn’s Wallabout Channel — the location of Combined Sewer Outfall NC-014, the source of 2.5 percent of NYC's total sewage discharge into New York Harbor — where he plans to install the DontFlushMe prototype sensor.
After living in an area where water was a critical issue of its own, I became interested in how NYC dealt with all the drinking and wastewater. I became involved in another awesome project, publiclaboratory.org, that was doing some work on the Gowanus Canal which is where I was introduced, firsthand, to the sewer problems. Wallabout Channel came into the picture because of its proximity to a large group of friends, all of which I hope will adopt the DontFlushMe system. I also wanted to start by targeting the worst offending CSO locations and Wallabout Channel was the ideal mash-up of the two.
With the installation of the prototype sensor currently underway, ioby fundraising will allow Percifield to construct and install additional sensors in critical CSO locations throughout NYC and further develop the DontFlushMe alert system (including that delightful, sewage level-indicating light bulb for your loo).
Erin Barnes, executive director of ioby, likes the idea of sewer system sensors that transmit signals to the Internet when raw sewage is about to overflow:
New Yorkers should donate to the project because the alert system makes the invisible network of underground pipes, sewage and water visible — with DontFlushMe the NYC sewer system talks back to us to let us know what's going on under the surface. In the end, this will be an important step in the iterative process of better protecting NYC's waterways.
Read more about DontFlushMe here and over at the project’s ioby page where you can help fund the project if you feel so inclined — the goal is $3,160 and you can read a detailed budget breakdown here. Percifield also maintains a DontFlushMe blog detailing all of the latest developments, including the prototype installation in the Wallabout Channel.
New Yorkers should also check out this interactive HabitatMap that provides an answer to the question: "Where does my toilet flush to?" In case you were terribly curious, my commode, located within the Red Hook sewageshed, flushes to the Red Hook Sewage Treatment Facility which oddly isn't even located in Red Hook but a couple of miles north in the miniscule Vinegar Hill neighborhood.
What do you think? Would you be interested in tapping into a tech-y sewage overflow alert system like the one devised by Percifield where you can receive “is it safe to flush?” updates via text message, Twitter, etc.? How big of problem is wastewater pollution in your community?
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