A Villanova University research team in southwest Puerto Rico studying water quality and its environmental impacts was able to more effectively collect, store, and share data in real time with the help of the Esri Geospatial Cloud and other technologies.
"Being able to simultaneously observe real-time observations along with the regional USGS gauging data allowed us to alter our sampling campaign to better assess these watersheds." - Dr. Steven Goldsmith
"Collector for ArcGIS was so much more intuitive than writing notes down in a field notebook." - Erin Siebert, Villanova University Research Team
The Rio Loco Watershed, located in southwest Puerto Rico, feeds water to the Caribbean Sea year-round and supports local farming operations in this corner of the tropical island. Starting in the foothills of the Cordillera Central mountains, this terrestrial river system stretches west into the Lajas Valley and south to Bahía de Guánica (Guánica Bay), where it meets the ocean. This drainage basin, however, is far from natural. While the Lajas Valley was used to grow sugarcane in the early 19th century, agricultural practices greatly expanded in the 1950s when a government project built a series of reservoirs and irrigation canals to store and transport precipitation from the nearby mountains to the valley for use during the driest periods of the year. Presada Loco is the primary reservoir from which water is released through the valley. During the wet season or whenever water volume exceeds the reservoir's capacity, water flows over the reservoir's spillway and through the natural river, the Rio Loco. During the dry season or times of low water volume, water is diverted through irrigation canals for use in the agricultural reserve. This budgeting of water has allowed farmers to grow market crops, such as banana, rice, and papaya, throughout the year.
However, this progress comes with a price to the surrounding river and marine environments. With the agricultural water runoff comes the increased transportation of sediment and excess nutrients that are known to be detrimental to these fragile aquatic systems. Within this river system, the influx of fertilizers can lead to algal blooms and eutrophic water bodies, killing fish and harming other aquatic organisms such as Guánica's nearshore coral reefs. Regardless of how or where, the environment suffers biodiversity and ecosystem service losses when water quality is degraded.
This is not to say that all farming must cease but, rather, that the relationship between humans and the environment must strike a balance such that farmers can grow crops, people have food to eat, and the environment is able to thrive. Understanding the complexities of this land use and water/ecosystem quality relationship is the basis of a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation-funded project being carried out by researchers at Villanova University since the summer of 2015. Thus far, their work has contributed to assessing the Guánica Bay Watershed Management Plan, whose goal is to create actionable steps to mitigate and reduce pollution from the watershed in an effort to preserve the land and coastal ecosystems. Additionally, the research team has previously coordinated with a local environmental firm and a high school to teach students about their watershed and what they can do to help protect it for future generations.
Supporting a Watershed Management Plan
Leading the research team investigating the watershed are Dr. Steven Goldsmith and Dr. Lisa Rodrigues, associate professors of environmental science in the Department of Geography and the Environment. The team spends part of their summers traversing the Puerto Rico countryside, sampling water all along the Rio Loco's irrigation system and natural stream to better understand how pollution moves through the watershed in an effort to isolate their sources and offer more effective management practices. "Our research aim is to provide an improved understanding of activity in the watershed that directly and indirectly affects the health of nearshore coral reefs," said Rodrigues. "Coral reefs are important in the region for the vast ecosystem services they provide, including fishing, tourism, and storm protection." Such an understanding is essential to finding and maintaining an equilibrium between humanity's ever-expanding footprint and the increasingly threatened natural environment for a sustainable future.
If you step into Goldsmith's lab, you will find shelves lined with notebooks that hold a wealth of sampling data from watersheds all over the world, from southeast Asia to Antarctica and from Pennsylvania to southwest Puerto Rico. The question that remains is, how do you quickly find the information you are looking for? Even the most organized researcher can spend valuable time digging through their notes to find records of interest. An easier, more intuitive catalog for storing data was necessary. In short, the notebook, paper, and pencil were Goldsmith's unchallenged staple of field note collection for decades—until the summer of 2019.
Introducing Modern Mobile Applications
The Villanova research team's summer 2019 trip to Puerto Rico ushered in new technologies that put the field notebooks back on the shelf. The team adopted the Esri Geospatial Cloud with other Esri-based GIS products to study the Rio Loco Watershed more efficiently. This digital transformation, however, was more than just streamlining the collection of field notes; it had the capacity to navigate, track, oversee, and explore the data collected in the field in on- and offline environments. Goldsmith, who enjoys spending his summers in the field, was unable to travel to Puerto Rico to help his graduate students, Erin Siebert and Nicole Marks, sample the Rio Loco for Siebert's thesis project, but the Esri platform allowed him to know not only where the students were and how quickly they were conducting fieldwork, but he could also observe their field notes instantaneously through the use of digital online maps.
Esri offers many applications that make recording data possible, customizable, and scalable. The primary purpose for venturing to Puerto Rico was to gather field samples. This was accomplished using Collector for ArcGIS, Esri's mobile data collection app. With a dataset of predetermined sample locations and the attributes that needed to be completed at each site, the students were able to fill out the required information at each of the 36 sample locations across the region in addition to collecting points of interest along the way. Aside from logging numeric or text information, Collector for ArcGIS allowed Siebert to capture geotagged images of the sample locations and do so with a high-accuracy, external GPS device. For Siebert, Collector for ArcGIS "was so much more intuitive than writing notes down in a field notebook. By having my sampling locations and water chemistry parameters on my phone, I could go back at any time and look at each site and see my water chemistry parameters as well as pictures associated with that site. This is a big step forward in terms of scientific field sampling."
While Siebert and Marks were traveling from site to site, Tracker for ArcGIS was automatically pushing a live feed of their current location and a bread crumb trail of where they had been for Goldsmith to view. This helped him see how the students were progressing across the watershed throughout the week. From a safety perspective, he always knew where they were in case the students, who had never been to Puerto Rico before, ran into any emergencies in the field.
The data from Collector and Tracker for ArcGIS can be visually overwhelming. To make it easier for Goldsmith to understand and monitor the students' progress, Siebert created a dashboard using Operations Dashboard for ArcGIS. When confronted with too much data, a dashboard is an excellent way to share information effectively to those who manage complex or multipart projects. As the students finished sampling at a site, the data logged with Collector would appear on Goldsmith's dashboard, and the sample location's color would change from red to yellow on the map. A gauge widget showed the overall progress for the entire trip, and a list widget gave a quick snapshot of the data from each completed site. If Goldsmith wanted to know more about a sample location, he could click on a point and see the associated field notes and photos. The bread crumb trail created by Tracker for ArcGIS was also added. Finally, Goldsmith wanted to monitor the United States Geological Survey (USGS) river gauges that are present in the watershed. This valuable, real-time Live Stream Gauges dataset was added to the dashboard with a few clicks using ArcGIS Living Atlas of the World, Esri's curated library of authoritative data available to all users. He could select a USGS gauge and view the most recent river information, including readings and hydrographs, in seconds. This dashboard, accessible on any device with an Internet connection, helped him keep track of the team, their work, and other external environmental factors. "Being able to simultaneously observe their real-time observations along with the regional USGS gauging data allowed us to alter our sampling campaign to better assess these watersheds," stated Goldsmith.
Still, Goldsmith did not have time to be constantly watching the dashboard, so the team decided to send him an email every time their work at a sample location was completed. This process was automated using webhooks. Webhooks allow a fieldworker to send emails automatically with Survey123 for ArcGIS. Siebert or Marks would fill out a simple survey, where they selected the name of the sample location they just finished from a preconfigured drop-down list. Survey123 would take their survey answer, turn it into an email, and with Microsoft Flow's webhook functionality, send an email to Goldsmith. He would then know that he could check the dashboard to see the most up-to-date field records and look for any potential discrepancies with the data before the team moved to the next site, saving time. There were added benefits to the notifications as well. "The e-mail notifications that kept me aware of their progress also provided peace of mind. If I did not receive one in the expected time frame, I could check the tracker to see if they were en route to the site or had run into difficulties at the site itself," stated Goldsmith.
To save additional time and help with understanding the unfamiliar landscape, Siebert and Marks employed a pair of apps to make the island more navigable. Using the Explorer for ArcGIS app, Siebert had quick access to any Puerto Rico data that she had stored in the Geospatial Cloud: roads, watershed boundaries, aerial imagery, sample locations, and more. If she wanted to have a better understanding of where she was relative to the nearby landscape, her phone had all the answers. Through a seamless integration with Explorer for ArcGIS, the team could access Navigator for ArcGIS. With Navigator, a prebuilt road network of Puerto Rico was downloaded from Esri and used to find the fastest route from site to site. The app was able to pull in features from Explorer, such as a sample location, and turn it into a destination. Whether on- or offline, the team always knew which way to go.
The Power of Analysis
After the completion of field data collection, the team leveraged other aspects of the Esri platform to offer insights about their watershed's dynamic environment, including the impacts of major storm events. In 2017, Hurricane Maria washed out parts of a recreational area in the neighboring Rio Yauco watershed while leaving a deep scar on the landscape. Using the drone photogrammetry software Drone2Map for ArcGIS, individual images were stitched together to create a large aerial photo and a digital terrain model of the site. By understanding the area's terrain before and after the storm, ArcGIS Pro can be used to calculate how the terrain changed and estimate the volume of earth that was washed out during the hurricane. As this study progresses, ArcGIS Pro will be used to analyze the field data that was collected. Understanding land-cover practices upstream of the sample locations will be essential in determining where conservation efforts are focused going forward.
Thanks to the Geospatial Cloud and other Esri applications, understanding The Science of Where for a project has never been easier to establish. It might seem like a big step to retire the notebooks in favor of the newest mobile collection app. In fact, the change can be intimidating, but this digital transformation, coupled with the right technology, can make fieldwork easier and more efficient. The data collected with Collector for ArcGIS can be downloaded directly into a Microsoft Excel table for immediate analysis. This seems simple, but if you collected data in a field notebook, you would still need to transcribe the field notes to a digital format before your analyses can begin. Why write down the same numbers twice? Or what if you lost your field notebook? Having data stored in the cloud offers peace of mind that your hard-earned data will not simply disappear. "I was a little hesitant to forgo the traditional methods of field note collecting at first but quickly realized the great potential of this new documenting system," stated Goldsmith. "Having this data stored in a centralized location from the time it is collected also saves time with data entry upon return from the field."
If people have become comfortable with folding up the paper map and putting it back in the glove boxes of their cars in preference to smartphone navigation apps, why not do the same with fieldwork? "This is a big step forward in terms of scientific field sampling," said Siebert, "and I think that this is the direction we should all be heading [in] when conducting field sampling." Whether you work in environmental science, the utilities or commercial fields, or for a government of any size, you can directly benefit from digitally transforming your field workflows to better collect, store, and share data across your organization with the Esri Geospatial Cloud.
This is a big step forward in terms of scientific field sampling. I think that this is the direction we should all be heading [in] when conducting field sampling.