Boston LightWells

Monitoring groundwater levels with a new app, Boston LightWells

Watch your step

Walking the streets of Boston, we pass thousands of covers over underground infrastructure, such manholes in the middle of the street to less-obvious covers in the middle of the sidewalk. Close to 900 of those covers are well caps from the Boston Groundwater Trust (BGwT), which monitors groundwater levels in Boston’s historic neighborhoods.

Maintaining high groundwater levels in Boston is important in preserving the old wood foundations of historic buildings, but also in maintaining a healthy river and coast by using the ground to filter stormwater. Leaks in tunnels, basements, broken pipes, and other infrastructure constantly draw down the groundwater. To keep groundwater levels stable, every building site and open space needs to keep as much stormwater as possible on site.

Because groundwater is one of the city’s most invisible resources, the public does not see the impact of changing stormwater levels. This inspired the LightWell project, an effort to unearth our groundwater system, led by Michelle Laboy, a Professor of Architecture from Northeastern University and co-founder of FieLDworkshop.

Collecting and visualizing groundwater level data in real time is a slow, manual process. When it rains we cannot immediately see how much groundwater levels increased. When there is a drought, we don’t observe the daily decrease in groundwater levels. Observing daily levels can provide clues to new leaks in the groundwater system. To solve this challenge, the LightWell team came up with an idea: to redesign the caps of the Groundwater Trust’s monitoring wells so that they display the groundwater levels in real time on your mobile phone.

Original LightWell Installation from the Public Space Invitational

This project is a spinoff of the earlier LightWell project, a winner of the Public Space Invitational from Boston’s Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. Installed in the South End Library Park, LightWell consists of two structures that visualize stormwater capture in public space by changing computer-controlled lights inside a playful design. The development of LightWell 2.0 was funded by an Autodesk BUILD grant, and is now installed on its first street in Boston. Ten Groundwater Trust wells on Commonwealth Ave. are now equipped with newly redesigned white caps and contain electronics to detect and display the water levels and communicate with your phone via Bluetooth. Next month, they caps will move to Newbury St., and will continue moving from street to street throughout the city for the next year. The initial plan is to have the wells in 7 streets in Back Bay, South End, and Fenway. Other streets are being explored and will be added in the future.

Crowdsourcing data: the BostonLightWell Mobile App

Groundwater levels - defined as the depth from the sidewalk to water - are displayed every hour on the top of well caps, and a Bluetooth antenna continuously transmits the data in real time to any mobile phone with the BostonLightWell app. Due to their locations, the caps are not connected to the internet. The mobile app allows the public to upload the data on water levels using their phone’s internet connection, a crowdsourced effort that allows the public to participate in collecting the data. This data will be used to generate more detailed mappings of groundwater in the near future. This is a form of what is called Citizen Science, public participation in research science. It is also a way to engage the public in understanding the invisible environment that is so crucial to the resilience of the city’s architecture and landscape, even in small gardens.

In some cases, the well caps can transmit the data as far as 100 feet away — so you can check in the map of your mobile app to see if there is one close to you. Or you can see a list of the active wells with an address, as well as the future wells to see when those will be coming online. If you are not near them, you can still see the active wells listed and see the last reading that someone uploaded to the cloud. The more people participate, the more up to date the app will be when it is offline.

Check out the app and find the wells.

The free app is available for Android and iOS devices. If you are in Back Bay soon, you can use the app to look for the wells, experience the groundwater level under your feet, and participate in this important project. The app will update the list of wells and keep them current so you know where to find them next.

For more information, visit the bostonlightwell.com or contact the Boston Groundwater Trust.