Crowdsourcing Clean Drinking Water, Interview with Sean Montgomery

An Interview with Sean Montgomery, the inventor of CitizenSpring, an app that collects and maps data about safe drinking water.

Read Time: 11 minutes

August 22, 2016, 2:00 PM PDT

By Casey Brazeal @northandclark


Drinking Water

Michael Pettigrew / Shutterstock

Sean Montgomery is a neuroscientist, inventor ,and the founder of a technology company called Connected Future Labs. His past work has included designing biofeedback jewelry and solving problems using computer vision, ranging from 3D body imaging to recognition of facial expressions to augmented reality applications.

He sat down with me to discuss his project CitizenSpring, an app that collects and maps data about safe drinking water.


Give me the elevator pitch for CitizenSpring.

CitizenSpring is an app that helps you test your water, specifically for lead, and then crowd source the data on a map that everyone can see. It can then be used to direct the attention of our public officials so we can identify and correct these problems faster. In Flint, Michigan, for example, I like to think if CitizenSpring had existed there, and people were testing their water, it wouldn't have been a year and a half before people realized that we were poisoning their children. We could have quickly figured out that there was a problem and immediately directed attention to that problem.

Where did this idea come from? It's one thing to read in the news that there's this huge issue, but how did you get the idea to create a technology that could address this?

I was worried, like a lot of people, starting to read articles about Flint and the tens of thousands of residents that were exposed to lead. As a Ph.D. in neuroscience, I'm well aware of how toxic lead is to the brain and the receptors in the brain related to learning and memory, particularly when those connections are being formed. Whole passages can be damaged and that's damage that can be with you for the rest of your life. It can cause symptoms of autism, ADHD, and all kind of negative associations. Hearing all of these reports, my neuroscience brain was going crazy. I mean, this is horrible. We're damaging a generation of children.

But then, as time went on, it became clear that it wasn't just Flint. There were problems in Philadelphia, DC, New York, Portland, and L.A. There are problems all over our country. And worse than that, there have been reports of public officials systematically underreporting lead contamination. Including, in one case, a source of water for daycares around New York City having their lead levels underreported. In Flint, the testing was repressed for over a year. I realized we need somebody to watch the watchmen, because the watchmen are falling down on the job.

Is that a big part of the project, to get information on water quality into a more visible place?

Exactly. Basically, it's about awareness and empowerment. I want to get across to people that this is not just a problem in Flint, Michigan, but a problem in your neighborhood. We were using lead pipes for many decades. We have been the victims of disinformation and we need to confront that directly. We have been misled in some cases, and that leads to some mistrust of the information. So the first thing we need is information we can trust.

CitizenSpring is addressing that by getting information from people like you. I trust that my motivations are protecting me and my family, as opposed to trusting an official who really doesn't want bad things to happen on their watch. That's what we saw at these daycare centers in New York, it's what we've seen in Flint and it's what we've seen around the country.

The second piece is empowerment. When you have a map, you can point to and show officials what the problem is and where it is–something that can help you communicate the scope and importance of the problem. That helps you spotlight the priorities that need to be set to fix these problems at the level of state and local governments.

Are you also thinking that this would serve as a check on officials who might not have the best intentions?

Right. At the first stage, and we're just launching this on Kickstarter so we are at an early stage, we're looking for the lowest barrier to entryway for people to start joining this conversation. We just have a poverty of information in general, even at the level of the federal government. We decided to address that at the lowest barrier to entry level, using lead test strips that you can buy online or at your local hardware store.

So what're the nuts and bolts of how this process works?

There's the short term and the long term.

In the short term, you get these lead test strips, they look kind of like a pregnancy test, you dip them in your water and get a result. The app walks you through the process. It's pretty simple. Once that test is run, the app uses the camera on your phone to scan the results, quantify them and publish them to a map. This info is tagged with location and time information and you can even add a photo of the drinking fountain and notes.

It's important to know when the test was done because lead levels tend to go up in the heat of the summer. You can let us know if that's a first draw test or a second draw test (this has to do with how long you let the water sit). And then, empowering you with these Citizen Scientist tools, we allow you to put this data on a map, a map you can look at to see where to direct your efforts. So you can test the places where the test is most useful and give people actionable information.

What are you hoping to fund with your Kickstarter?

We have engineers building an app and its backend infrastructure. We're building a program to walk you through the test process, constructing the computer vision algorithms and then putting that information into a database in the cloud. That's what we're looking to fund at this stage. We're partway through that process already. We've built a prototype app and done a lot of the backend, though some of that isn't yet running because there's a cost associated with running those processes.

You mean server space and paying developers?

Exactly. If we meet our goal, we'll cover somewhere between 20 and 50 percent of the total cost. This is something that we're also investing in.

There are two things that follow people around the world: water and maps. We need to know where our water is safe to drink. Putting data on a map is Information Age 101. This is the most basic thing in the 21st century. We have this huge problem, and with the lead crisis we have an immediate need, but in general we need clean drinking water and there are lots of ways we can test our drinking water. So we can all do our own tests and sequester that information, or, preferably, we can pool our resources and make all that information publicly available so we can tackle this problem in the most effective way possible.

It seems to be a problem where the necessary technology and information exist, and it’s just a question of building a system to house that information. You're not waiting for or building on some new breakthrough. It's just a question of doing legwork to get a system built and then maintaining the system.

And then from there, after addressing this immediate need around lead, we hope this is going to be a repository for a lot of information-making intersections. These lead test strips test water, but from there the next step could be atomic absorption spectroscopy, and ultimately incorporate more fine-grain information, like, if we have facilities that use lead pipes, they should get more tests. An app could help guide both the Citizen Scientists and our officials to test the places that most need testing.

In terms of empowering citizens to be better watchdogs of their local governments, how do you envision that happening?

I'm hoping that, as the app grows, it continues to become more sophisticated. But at the most immediate level, you as a Citizen Scientist can test your own water, and now that data is on a map and you can share this information to your community through social media to mobilize your community around the issue. And you have a resource for confronting your government officials when they share misinformation, and you can highlight the dangerous places to those who would be affected by it.

You could have an immediate impact and could shut down dangerous water fountains.

If this really takes off and can support itself through granting or as a business, the goal is to have the app guiding you through the process. But let's start by testing every faucet. And once those have been tested, it's a matter of testing them regularly. Tests go out of date. I talked about how lead can be more prevalent in the summer, but there's also the problem that construction can shake lead loose. It's about testing the places that need testing, and there are a host of reasons that something can need testing. The app can guide people through that. Inconsistent results can also be an issue.

Are you thinking at some point that you enter a zip code and the app suggests the faucets you should test? Kind of like the way Pokemon Go sends players where the Pokemon are?

Yes, it could be like the Pokemon Go for safe water. And it could be at the level of sophistication where it asks for a strip test in some places and a spectroscopy test in others, to level up.

So, through Citizen Scientist engagement we can improve our infrastructure.

What are the dangers of lead? What are the symptoms?

Lead is bad for your body in a number of ways. The EPA has said there is no safe level of lead but the threshold they defined is below 15 parts per billion. That threshold triggers action at the EPA. There's debate about whether or not that very small amount is low enough, but that's a threshold the public is currently working around.

As far as the dangers of lead, it's a substance that accumulates in your blood and takes a month to clear. It is particularly bad for kids, though it's bad for everybody. It will damage a person's kidneys, liver and most importantly their brain. It physically acts at the NMDA receptor in the brain, so, even in adults, it can have a profound effect on learning and memory, which are corrupted when this receptor is blocked. Children have a less developed blood-brain barrier, so toxins like lead are more potent when kids are dealing with them. Also the developing brain is still creating the pathways that will shape its thoughts for the rest of the person's life. Your brain is actively developing until you're 25, so what happens as a kid can have lifetime consequences.

I've seen articles on associations between lead poisoning and anti-social behaviors, like crime. Can becoming a criminal indirectly be associated with lead poisoning? Is that something that's consistent with current science?

I think for me personally that's one of the great tragedies of the whole issue. Lead poisoning is most likely to show up in underserved communities and in communities of color. So the people who are already impoverished are being further pushed back down by lead in their water. It's really an ugly part of our society. Imagine if your child has ADHD or some other impairment that could be putting them on a course for a life of crime and creating a vicious cycle.

Does lead poisoning affect the poorest of the poor most because they have the oldest infrastructure?

That's right. And they have the least people looking after them, because without money, it's hard to get the attention of public officials. They don't have the megaphone. So I'm hopeful that this can be one way for the underserved and underprivileged to speak out. They can say, look, it's on a map. It's right here.

Though I should be very clear this is not just a problem of the poor. Lead contamination is everywhere. Number one, everyone drinks water. And sometimes where pipes are has to do with where there were smelters and where those smelters had political power to get their pipes in the ground and where people were most likely to use their pipes–and that could be anywhere. That doesn't discriminate by wealth or schools.

The immediate fire I want to put out is this lead crisis. We can do much better than we're doing now. We need a way to access and validate the information we're being given and we can do that.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. You can get a lead test on Amazon or a kit of tests for other toxins and problems like bacteria, copper, iron and a whole host of other things. A lot of people think that in this century, ultimately water is going to be the key resource we have to grapple with. And, ultimately, that expands beyond the borders of the United States. Water quality affects billions. Even in much of the undeveloped world, cell and smartphones are very common and could be used to deepen our knowledge.

For me, this issue starts very focused and then extends out to potentially one of the biggest issues that affects people today.


Casey Brazeal

Casey Brazeal is a Chicago-based writer and planner. His background includes time as a research assistant at the Urban Transportation Center and as a reporter with a weekly column for Extra Newspaper in Chicago.

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