MoboSens, a Square-like tool for eco warriors, lets you crowdsource water pollutants

Clear water doesn’t always equal clean water. Toxins such as nitrates and arsenic can reside in water that looks perfectly potable, but thanks to a research project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the power of sensors, smartphones and supercomputers will create a water quality monitoring project that can tell you if your water is safe to drink as well as track a community’s water over time.

The project, called MoboSens, relies on a large sensor plugged into the audio jack on a smartphone. It looks like an ugly (and huge) Square dongle, but instead of taking payments it senses water quality using a microeletromechanical (MEMs) sensor inside the dongle. The goal is to eventually use the MEMs packed into the device to measure nitrate, heavy metal, carcinogens, and bacteria in water.

The data is shared with an app running on the smartphone and then sent to the cloud for detailed analysis and storage. People interested in participating can support the project on Indiegogo through May 11. The project also won second prize at the Vodafone Wireless Innovation Project awards ceremony last week.

I like this project because it taps into what is awesome about the intersection between consumer technology and science. Companies such as RootMetrics and Waze, which use smartphones to crowdsource data about cell service and traffic, respectively, are more consumer friendly examples of this trend. This project adds more tailored sensors for the phone but taps into the same benefits of crowdsourcing.

Meanwhile on the back end, the data goes to people with the compute power and expertise to use it to focus on more than just the water at hand, making it possible to draw conclusions about overall water systems. In this sense, MoboSens is trying to do for the environment what doctors are doing through a combination of smartphones and sensors to offer a view of our collective health.

These projects take the notion of gathering personal data and empowers people to contribute it for the benefit of all. That’s the real promise of the internet of things.