Interactive Groundwater Well Caps Allow Residents to View Data from Their Smartphones

By Beth Treffeisen

In effort to make the invisible more visible, a new app in the City is working to bring awareness and a better understanding to the groundwater levels in the downtown and historic neighborhoods of Boston.

Restoring and maintaining groundwater levels in the infill downtown neighborhoods, including parts of Beacon Hill, Back Bay, Fenway and the South End, is critical to the preservation of structural wood pilings, and the health of riparian and coastal ecologies.

In an attempt to make collecting data a little bit easier, the Boston Groundwater Trust, an organization that monitors groundwater levels throughout the filled land areas of the city, partnered with Team LightWell on the Seven Streets Groundwater Data Crowd Sourcing Project.

Team LightWell, a 2014 winner of the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics Public Space Invitational, has designed interactive well caps to leverage groundwater level data.

Ten custom-designed, Bluetooth-enabled, translucent-Corian well caps will be on display on seven Boston streets for a period of four weeks each, over a course of 28 weeks.

In that time, residents and visitors can see real-time groundwater level data digitally displayed on the face of the well caps and interact with the data through the Boston LightWells mobile app.

“It is a way to engage the public on why it is important,” said Christian Simonelli the executive director of the Boston Groundwater Trust. “The well caps will be placed in the areas that are most important.”

Over the course of several months, the well caps will move locations over seven different streets that run through the Back Bay, Fenway, and South End neighborhoods.

Currently, the well caps are temporarily running down Beacon Street, from Beacon Hill into the Back Bay. After a few weeks, they will be moved to their next location on Commonwealth Ave.

The well caps will have a microcontroller that is connected to a depth sensor 30 feet below grade. The sensor will be reading and logging groundwater continuously.

Every hour, it will provide a reading with a scrolling message by an LED matrix. Users will be able to use the free mobile app to get the reading and push it to a cloud storage database, using the public’s mobile phones to crowd-source the real-time data.

The data will be used to generate an interactive map. It will include 17 years of historic data measured manually in over 800 monitoring wells from the Boston Groundwater Trust that has been translated into a time-lapse.

This tool helps to better visualize how groundwater levels have changed in response to infrastructure projects and smaller groundwater recharge stations added since 2007.

As data comes in from the well caps by the public, a digital model is being developed to automatically update the map from the cloud database.

“When you try to explain that to someone it is hard,” said Simonelli. “This paints a good picture on what is happening below the surface.”

The well caps are partly being funded by the Boston Ground Water Trust and partly by the grant LightWell received from the City.

To manually read the 100 plus wells in the City, which is typically an intern from Wentworth College, pops open the well covering and places a probe with a measuring tape down. When it hits the water it beeps and the person reading the well can see how deep down the water is.

Simonelli said that manually it takes about a minute to read it but, with the app you only need to be walking by and you can read it straight off your phone.

“You don’t have to get your hands dirty,” said Simonelli. “This allows us to collect data more frequently and confirm what we already know.”

Manually, the wells are read about every four to five weeks. Simonelli said that although some day the readings can be fully automatic, he likes to have people out checking on them.

“I want to make sure the cap has no cracks, is not sticking up and is flush with the sidewalk so no one trips,” said Simonelli. “They’re my eyes and ears and if something is wrong they tell me.”

In 2015, LightWell installed two drywells at the South End Library Park. In what looks like brightly lit plastic rocks, the sensing technology is leveraged to demonstrate the real-time flow and depth measurements into changing color lights. Green means the water is at a good level, when it turns blue the water is at a lower level and needs to be recharged.

The solar-powered seat and planter sits in low-points of the public library park, and activates the urban landscape at night. The sensor data is published online, in real time.

“I’m curious to see how many people engage,” said Simonelli. “There are a lot of curious and vigilant people in these neighborhoods.”

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