The Open Water Data project explores new ways to experience environmental data as a community to increase collective understanding and engagement in important civic conversations. It helps make open source governmental data visible, accessible, and useful to community members, advocacy groups, and local governments. It also turns a critical eye on how open data sets about the environment are shared with the public, and asks: Who do these datasets serve and who could they serve?
Our team shares the resources for creating an Open Water Data installation so that other communities can hold similar events and help us all better understand environmental contamination. There are over 50,000 facilities operating in the US with Clean Water Act (CWA) permits to emit wastes into public waterways. Close to a quarter of these facilities are in significant violation of their permits. In the Trump administration, enforcement action by the EPA has fallen to a 10 year low and many CWA protections are being weakened or eliminated. We hope that Open Water Data projects (such as Chemicals in the Creek, described below) can bring communities together to revitalize the grassroots efforts that lead to regulations like the Clean Water Act, affirm the public's right to know about contaminants, and limit industrial health hazards.
During the Chemicals in the Creek Open Water Data installation, researchers and community members floated data lanterns onto the Chelsea River in Massachusetts to create a physical representation of Clean Water Act violations by local oil storage facilities. The Clean Water Act is a federal law that limits how much and what kinds of harmful chemicals can be put into waterways. From 2013-2017, the seven oil storage facilities in this area violated their CWA permits 76 times. We represent each of these violations with a lantern with a logo from the facility that the violation came from and that is color coded based on the chemical in violation. We hope these lanterns will shed light on the problem of chemicals being released into the creek and begin a community conversation about improving industrial accountability.
Chemicals in the Creek is a collaboration between the MIT Media Lab, Northeastern University's Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute (SSEHRI), and GreenRoots. Contact us if you'd like to create a new Open Water Data installations in your city or join our mailing list to find out about future events!
The Chemicals in the Creek installation is led by Laura Perovich, Sara Wylie, and Roseann Bongiovanni. The installation was developed with GreenRoots' ECO youth crew and Leilani Mroczkowski from 2017-2018.
Thanks to everyone who participated in the event and the community meeting, the Chelsea community, the Chelsea Police, Paddle Boston and the Boston University Cyber Law Clinic. Thanks to the undergraduate and graduate students who contributed to this project: Michael Still, Gustavo Santiago-Reyes, Jacqueline Chen, Maggie Zhang, Xavier Mojica, Emily Schachtele, Garance Malivel, and Shawn Sullivan. Thanks to the volunteers that assisted during the event: John Rao, Arushi Sood, Ed Hackett, Sharon Harlan, Olivia Ozkurt, Abbie Keane, Holly Coppes, Hanson Au, Lourdes Vera, Marc Jacobson, Dorian Stump, Angela Stewart, Laura Senier, Grace Poudrier, and Kaline Langley. Thanks to the event photographers and videographers: Rio Asch Phoenix, Will Campbell, Jimmy Day, and David Mussina.
With support from CRESSH, Elements Fellows Program, V. Michael Bove and Object-Based Media, the MIT Media Lab communications team, and RIELS.
Join our mailing list to find out about future data installations and water quality events!
Would you like to have a data installation in your community? Do you have questions or suggestion about the fabrication tutorials? Reach out to us at: perovich <at> media <dot> mit <dot> edu.
Volunteer for EDGI to promote environmental health and environmental justice on a national level!
Beyond this project: Partner up with the community group supporting your local rivers and watersheds, such as the Mystic River Watershed Association, Friends of Magazine Beach, and OARS in Massachusetts. Regional and national groups such as the Conservation Law Foundation.
The Chemicals in the Creek installation is the first of many Open Water Data projects that make environmental data visible and actionable in communities. Our methods for creating this installation and building the data lanterns is shared as an open source project and fully documented below so others can make use of these tools. Our fabrication process involves tools common in makerspaces, such as laser cutters, soldering tools, and vinyl cutters. You may be able to access these tools through your local university or community makerspaces. You can find a list of supplies and more information about getting the data here. Please reach out to us if you have questions about the tutorials or if you would like to host an Open Water Data event in your community!
The Open Water Data project seeks to create community based data physicalizations that are collectively experienced and can lead to action on important environmental issues.
Chemicals in the Creek is the first installation in this project. It was developed through a series of interdisciplinary community-based workshops in Chelsea, MA, from 2017-2018 with MIT, Northeastern, and GreenRoots' ECO youth crew. It uses data lanterns to create a physical representation of Clean Water Act (CWA) violations by local oil storage facilities from 2013-2017. The CWA was put into law in the United States in 1972 and controls the pollution allowed into waterways (rivers, lakes) in the United States and the quality of the waters through a permitting system. Information about how well industries are following their permits is available through the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database. Yet it can be difficult for communities to find and interpret this website. The Chemicals in the Creek installation makes local CWA data visible and starts a collective conversation about health, environment, and justice.
These conversations are particularly important in communities like Chelsea, MA, which is both a Designated Port Area (DPA) and an Environmental Justice community. The concept of Environmental Justice developed from the Civil Rights movement which fought for justice and equity of communities of color in the United States, including access to healthy environments. Academic research shows white and middle and upper class communities live in environments where there are fewer toxic and hazardous industries, and therefore are not exposed to as many pollutants that can harm their health. Additionally, many environmental justice communities may not have access to their local environmental resources, as is the case in Chelsea where much of the waterfront is part of the Mystic River DPA and is protected for water-dependent industrial uses. Because of this, people living in Chelsea may have limited or no access to the river and the shoreline for recreational purpose.
Facilities can violate their CWA permits in a variety of ways, such as exceeding the amount of pollutants they are permitted to discharge reporting data late or failing to report data to the EPA. The Chemicals in the Creek performance includes only violations for exceeding the amount of pollutants that facilities are allowed to discharge, called "numeric violations." You can use a facility's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) ID to search the ECHO website and get more information on the environmental record of the facilities. You can also directly download files from the ECHO database using the NPDES ID and the dates of interest. To directly download the data, replacing the "p_id=" value in the link below with the NPDES IDs of the facility you are interested in and fill in the "start_date=" and "end_date=" values. For example, to get the data for Chelsea Sandwich from January 1st, 2017 to January 1st, 2018, use the link: https://ofmpub.epa.gov/echo/eff_rest_services.download_effluent_chart?p_id=MA0003280&star t_date=01/01/2013&end_date=01/01/2018
The Chemicals in the Creek installation included CWA permit violations for eight different water quality parameters: pH; Total Suspended Solids (TSS); Benzene; Benzo(a)pyrene (BaP); Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene and Xylenes (BTEX); methyl tert butyl ether (MBTE); napthalene; and oil & grease. There is a large range in the impacts of these pollutants on the health of the river and the health of the community. For example, benzene is a known carcinogen and plants and animals exposed to benzene may die prematurely, while short term variations in river water pH may not have much of an impact on people and aquatic life in some contexts. These pollutants come from many sources, including some related to the oil storage facilities (e.g. spilled oil, burning gas, gas stations), and some unrelated to the oil storage facilities (e.g. burning wood, mothballs, sewage, acid rain).
The supplement information documents include more detailed information on the impacts of these chemicals on human health and the environment, and information about where these chemicals come from and how we can be exposed to them, as well as a full description of our methods, the CWA, Environmental Justice, and the ECHO data here in English and Spanish. Also, our github page includes code for collecting the data and parts lists for building the installation.
You can read more about the Chemicals in the Creek installation in articles published in academic journals and the popular press: