Made-in-Ottawa app helps volunteers keep watch over river

Volunteer ecologists who help keep watch over the Ottawa River have started using a locally developed app to record and share their observations in a central database.

'Riverwatchers' use smartphones to upload observations, photos to central database

The Ottawa Riverkeeper's Meaghan Murphy (left) trains volunteer 'Riverwatchers' Wendy Ryan and Howard Powles with help from Water Rangers app developer Kat Kavanagh (right). (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

Volunteer ecologists who help keep watch over the Ottawa River have started using a locally developed app to record and share their observations in a central database.

The app, developed by Ottawa-based non-profit Water Rangers, allows anyone with a smartphone to submit measurements such as water temperature, as well as observations about pollution, wildlife sightings and invasive species.

"What we're trying to do is open up citizen science to the everyday person," said Kat Kavanagh, executive director of Water Rangers, during the app's launch Tuesday in Gatineau's Moussette Park, on the shore of the Ottawa River.

With the aid of a geo-locating feature, the information — which can include photos — is then fed into a central database where it can be plotted and analyzed.

Kavanagh said she hopes the app will be used to help improve conditions along the Ottawa River. 

"I think the first step in making change is awareness," said Kavanagh.

New tool for 'Riverwatchers'

The Ottawa Riverkeeper relies on an army of 75 volunteers called "Riverwatchers" to patrol approximately 600 kilometres of the Ottawa River, or nearly half the waterway's length.

During their annual get-together Tuesday, Riverwatch coordinator Meaghan Murphy trained the first batch of volunteers to use the Water Ranger app.
Kat Kavanagh's Water Rangers app allows Ottawa Riverkeeper 'Riverwatchers' Wendy Ryan (left) and Howard Powles (right) to publish their observations and recordings of the Ottawa River into a central database through a smartphone. (Giacomo Panico/CBC)

"They really are our eyes and ears on the river," said Murphy. "What's so awesome about this app is people can take what they know and share it publicly."

Murphy said staff at the Ottawa Riverkeeper plans to track all the information posted on Water Rangers, including observations posted by the general public.

"That information comes to us, tells us that there's an issue, and then we can help problem-solve and create change," said Murphy.

Kavanagh and her team at Water Rangers created the app as an entry in last year's inaugural "aquahacking" event, where it took first prize.

In addition to the partnership with the Ottawa Riverkeeper, Water Rangers has teamed up with Mobile Baykeeper in Alabama.
A map of the Ottawa River from the Water Rangers website. (Water Rangers)