New Web site melds watershed science with social networking

Taking some cues from popular social networking Web sites, a team including a Penn State civil engineer, the University's Center for Environmental Informatics and Drexel University has developed a Web service that allows users to search for water-related datasets and share their own work in the mid-Atlantic region.

Patrick Reed, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, came up with the idea for the site, dubbed the Mid-Atlantic Watershed Atlas (MAWA), when he began wondering who else might be doing research in or around the mid-Atlantic.

"If you think about all the consultancies, all of the agencies, all of the researchers, all of the watershed groups in the mid-Atlantic region, we really don't know who's doing what where," he said.

With support from the National Science Foundation, Reed began developing the MAWA Web site to help people discover watershed data.

"We are really one of the first regional users of what is termed the hydrologic information system developed to advance watershed science."

He describes the new site as data repository meeting social networking. "I had someone ask me if this is like a Facebook or Twitter for water. I said 'no,' but it draws on some of those concepts in its peer-to-peer sharing."

"I think what's unique about this is two facets: First, it provides one-stop shopping for finding diverse, different types of data. Secondly, its sharing functionality allows people to quickly tag in various watersheds what their group is doing, whether it's a watershed organization, state agency, university or any number of groups," Reed said. "We hope what emerges is a new dataset that can quickly give a sense of what's out there and who's doing what and where. We've identified more than 700 groups that are active in the mid-Atlantic looking at water resource problems. That's probably the tip of the iceberg. But it's fractured. It's really difficult to find out who's doing what, even if you're going to go and do work in a watershed or want to learn about a watershed. Sometimes it would be helpful to be able to see who's been actively doing an investigation."

The site's user interface is similar to those used by commercial search engines and mapping sites.

"It's like Google Earth, but on top of that we can do analysis graphically by getting in and looking at the data," he said. "Google Maps has legitimately captured people's imaginations. People like being able to see their houses. They start at their houses and move out to the world. So we're taking that approach, but instead we're letting folks explore their local watershed."

The site, at http://www.mawa.psu.edu/ online, even includes video tutorials to help new users exploit the system.

Additionally, Reed's site offers something Google Earth and Virtual Earth don't offer. "One of the more unique things we've done in this is when you use Google Earth or Virtual Earth, you can only look at the high-res image. We allow people to download it. Why that's useful is if you're in a project meeting and you need a high-res image of where you're planning a project, this provides a way to find out what aerial imagery is available and download it. It's up to you how to use it."

The high-res imagery is derived from 638 aerial photographs from states' regional mapping missions.

Information on the site is indexed in a number of ways, including keywords, themes and names.

"You can just type in 'stream flow' and the name of the watershed instead of going to the U.S. Geological Survey  and having to know the exact latitude and longitude or the gauging station ID number," the civil engineer said.

"If you type in the keyword 'watershed,' you can click it and zoom in," Reed said as he demonstrated on his computer. "Now what you see in red is the watershed boundary for the upper Juniata River."

The site also allows users to link other materials to it, including paper abstracts and data.

Reed believes the site will draw researchers not only from the mid-Atlantic region, but also engineers and scientists from around the world.

"Data is sometimes expensive," he said. "This data would cost a tremendous amount of money in some countries. A lot of international researchers may want to focus on the mid-Atlantic region to build their own tools because it's free."

The site took two years to develop, but it contains data going back several decades, depending on the USGS or Environmental Protection Agency monitoring stations in a given watershed.

"It's a prototype system that we made to be flexible, so as our research evolves, collaborators can get involved and organizations get involved to help us add more data services into it," Reed said.

He said the site has something for everyone.

"I like to think this can scale from the local fisherman who wants to know what's happening in their favorite local stream all the way to some broad initiatives where lots of scientists are trying to figure out how climate change or land-use change might impact the mid-Atlantic."

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Last Updated September 29, 2009