Liquid App Transforms Data Collection Method

By: Desiré Bennett

CEAS environmental engineering graduate student Jacob Shidler travels to Comoros Islands to collect rainwater and returns with innovative data collection software.

Jacob Shidler collecting a rainwater sample from a gutter actively filling a handmade cistern.

Jacob Shidler collecting a rainwater sample from a gutter actively filling a handmade cistern.

In May 2012 environmental engineering graduate student Jacob Shidler took a self-funded trip to the Comoros Islands to conduct graduate research and returned with more than research results.

Shidler’s goal was to collect and analyze roof-harvested rainwater. “I gathered samples straight from the gutters of families living there,” he said. “I genuinely wanted to help the people of the Comoros in the best way possible, and I knew that meant producing the best data possible.”

Shidler is studying the impact that specific gutter material – aluminum, plastic, wood, or concrete – has on the quality of the rainwater that is collected and stored for drinking and cooking uses. “The samples I collected and brought back are being used to identify any ‘bio-indicators’ that could suggest a particular degree of water quality,” he explains. “These bio-indicators are based on the specific biologic life present in the gutter samples such as algae, diatoms and micro-invertebrates. All these organisms are being identified and compared to general water quality parameters, such as turbidity, conductivity, pH, and temperature, collected with the samples.”

Shidler hopes to provide two things from this research. “First, to conclude if gutter material does in fact have a significant impact on the quality of roof harvested rainwater and if so, what materials are best suited to produce the highest degree of water quality,” he said. “Second, we will provide an extensive list of all taxa discovered in the samples collected from gutters in Comoros. This will serve as a unique survey of flora and fauna (plant and wildlife) found in the rainwater gutters of the Comoros islands, which is a fundamental piece of biological documentation.”

In hopes of collecting 25 water samples while in the Comoros Islands, a chain of islands off the southeast coast of Africa, Shidler equipped himself with several tools needed to aid him in his research process. “Knowing how remote a place the Comoros is, I was faced with the reality that the data I collected could be limited because my supplies were limited.” he said. “So I stocked up – 20 write-in-the-rain pens, several waterproof field notebooks, and 40 double-A batteries for my digital camera and field instruments – and that’s what led me to re-think this whole ‘write all of your data on paper’ thing.”

Jacob preparing a collected rainwater sample to be stored during travel back the U.S.

Jacob preparing a collected rainwater sample to be stored during travel back the U.S.

Shidler searched for a better way to keep track of his data and was led to his iPad. Before leaving for the Comoros Islands, Shidler customized an app to fit his research needs. His app enabled him to collect 74 water samples – a number three times more than his initial expectations.

“When I returned home, my professors and advisors were more impressed with my data collection methodology using the iPad than with the actual data I had collected,” he explains. “I quickly realized that the solution I created for my graduate research could greatly impact all scientific research.”

Shidler’s solution, an app he and software developer Caleb LeNoir created called “Liquid Field Notes,” is a mobile software application that allows anyone, from the volunteer citizen scientist to the professional academic researcher, to easily create a digital data sheet template. Through this data sheet, users can collect, store, and efficiently organize scientific field data for research, analysis, collaboration and publication.

Shidler and LeNoir are working to make Liquid Field Notes available on Android platforms. He says the app bridges the gap between data and results. “Hand written notes, data transcription and redundancy are eliminated. Liquid Field Notes is more efficient, allowing for a larger sample size, and also reduces the entry points for error, which results in more credible data,” he said. “Conveniently, all collected data ends up in one central location. Moreover, with the central Liquid database connected to data contributors, there is potential for immediate collaboration across data – which means greater insight and faster results.”

According to Shidler scientific data is predominantly collected using paper notebooks and later transcribed into a computer for further analysis. “Transcription is extremely time consuming and prone to human error and there is often no central location to collect and store data, so there is a high potential for losing or misplacing important data altogether,” he said. “More entry points increase the potential for error, which produces less credible results. Not to mention, the simple act of collecting data using pen and paper is a slow process.”

Comorian guide and Jacob, inspecting a rainwater gutter to be sampled.

Comorian guide and Jacob, inspecting a rainwater gutter to be sampled.

Shidler says that Liquid Field Notes can be used in any setting where field data is collected. “From a high school chemistry class, to scientific research, to citizen science, and even non-scientific fields, such as construction inspections,” he said. “We believe that people will better their world if they have a better chance to understand it. Liquid will get everyone, students, hobbyists and professionals alike, involved in collecting data and discovering results and possible solutions to pressing issues on a global scale.”

Shidler plans to travel back to the Comoros Islands as soon as possible. “This time I will be using Liquid Field Notes to collect more data on roof harvested rainwater at villages near the summit of Mt. Karthala, the active volcano, which makes up the island of Grand Comore,” he said. “I want to better understand the effects of elevation on the quality of their harvested rainwater.”

Shidler says that for nations reliant on rainwater as the dominant source of water, such as the Comoros, knowledge of best practices for collection of rainwater to produce the highest degree of water for drinking and cooking will lead to better health and a decreased risk of water borne illnesses such as gastroenteritis. “A better understanding of roof harvested rainwater and the variables which affect its quality is valuable to any nation around the world and we hope to add to that understanding with this research.”

Development of Liquid Field Notes continues and is expected to move into actual product testing in December 2013. Once testing is completed, the product is expected to be made available through app stores for both Apple and Android platforms. The cost is yet to be determined.

Shidler’s final thesis defense of his graduate research is expected to take place by the end of summer 2014.

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