Quick question: how can we monitor outdoor water quality with FreeUP?

Revolutionary low-cost sensors now mean anyone can assess the state of any water body in the UK, delivering data on pollution events, dried up rivers, and more. 

Overall, the IoT devices can lead to a 70% reduction in the cost of monitoring outdoor water quality. Meanwhile, a resilient design means the system can be deployed even during a flood event, is less prone to vandalism and requires minimal maintenance. 

With no sign of a let up in Britain’s ongoing water pollution crisis, and decades of network neglect and disrepair to undo, we speak to Dr Tom McNamara, founder of FreeUP, to understand more about this incredible technology. 

What catalysed the initial work that led to developing FreeUP?
My understanding of how water quality measurements are made from a scientific standpoint, my opinion that far too much was being charged for these measurements and the belief that if they could be done at a far lower cost huge benefits in terms of efficiency and positive outcomes could be achieved. These benefits could then also be exported to other countries, as we are all facing a changing climate with pressures on water quality and scarcity.

How does FreeUP work?
FreeUP enables people to understand and improve how we all interact with rivers and outdoor water bodies. This in turn enables the UK to put its efforts where they will have the greatest impact ensuring positive change for the lowest costs. To deliver this we need to do two things, collect a lot of real-time information and create knowledge from this data so that people can act.

In terms of real-time information, when we started this work years ago, there wasn’t a way to collect water quality and quantity data in real-time in a way that could scale. The hardware was too expensive, too difficult to deploy, prone to vandalism and required technical staff to keep it running. We couldn’t get the data that we fundamentally needed to understand water on a national scale.

In response to this, we created sensors that would scale nationally. Over five years we’ve iterated on our design. It’s now far lower in cost than others, so it can be deployed even in a flood, by anyone. And it’s hidden, so it doesn’t attract attention.

Sensors autonomously run their own data connections, diagnostics, self-cleaning and self-recharging activities minimising any maintenance required. This puts us in a unique position to then pull in other data sources such as weather, historical sets and other real-time government sources to create an overview
of events.

The second step is turning this data into knowledge. Our dashboard displays the collected information in an intuitive way and runs various calculations on the data, so that it’s more valuable for helping people take action.

Imagine when you use your phone to navigate you when you’re driving, you don’t see all of the raw data such as other car’s locations, velocities. You see if the traffic is good, medium or bad so you can act. We do the same for outdoor water quality. We can give you a map of river sections that are really dry or areas where there is a lot of erosion, or where sewage is likely.

Going back to the analogy, if the traffic on your journey then becomes terrible, your phone can make the suggestion of a different route, one that’s faster, more fuel efficient. That’s what FreeUP does for outdoor water quality. If you find that the rivers are drying up in summer, we can help guide the choices made to keep water in the rivers all year round, we can help identify what types of weather events lead to significant pollution incidents, or if it’s going to be a good idea to go swimming in the next few hours.

time lapse photography of water drop

Who are the intended users of FreeUP?
Ultimately we aim to provide assistance to all users from the public wanting to enjoy the sea or rivers, up to national overviews for the government and many groups in between. Water systems are unusual in that they flow through many ownership groups; landowners, organisations pulling water out of rivers or putting it back. So our solution needs to be able to accommodate all of these groups for us to be able to assist from source to sea.

The user groups that we are initially targeting are the various trusts and charities that are stewards of river water quality, utility companies that have been mandated to monitor their impacts over the next six years, and landowners who have the ability to be funded to improve water quality. One of our aims is to democratise water quality monitoring. To date it has been too expensive and difficult for the average citizen to monitor water quality and we want to change that.

A major cost in the business plans submitted by utilities providers is the staffing required to deploy and maintain the sensors being mandated to them by the government. On the other hand, trusts have a lot of volunteer time available at little to no cost, but no capability to make wide scale measurements.

The sampling trusts can do will not be able to replace the mandated sampling required by the utilities. But we believe it will help provide context to the measurements being made. This will create a far more impactful picture of events across the whole of the UK and create a more informed and empowered public. This will also help trusts better coordinate their efforts, understanding and use of money raised, improving efficiency and transparency which can inform the Government.

How can the system provide actionable insights?
It provides insights through the collection of wide scale in-water sensing, enabled by our low cost and low maintenance sensors. This is then worked up to provide the guidance required for users to make the best decisions possible for what they are trying to achieve.

WaterUK recently unveiled a huge plan for sewage upgrades in response to widespread criticism over pollution events. Do you think this looks like an effective proposal?
I think it’s mixed in terms of effectiveness, but certainly a step in the right direction. While challenges exist, particularly regarding funding and implementation, it demonstrates a positive response to public pressure and environmental concerns. It shows that the public do have a say in what is prioritised in the UK and if we can better understand the impact we are having then we have the opportunity to fix it. What matters is
the impact on the environment and people’s ability to enjoy the outdoors.

The storage improvements to the sewage network will improve resilience by holding excess water during heavy rainfall, preventing overflow into water bodies. This helps to minimise pollution events by mitigating the release of untreated sewage into the environment. This will be a major gain as it will help to fix the issue as its core and is something that is long overdue if we are to improve the environment and our resilience in general. As a reference point, similar work to this is either planned or already underway across Europe. For example, in Paris, to make the Seine clean enough to swim in for this year’s Olympic games.

In terms of parts of the plan that I think currently aren’t in a working state I would say that environmental monitoring is one. The update from the government last October including a revision, meaning only 25% of sites need to be monitored by 2030. I think this outlines the difficulty in executing what has been mandated with the sensing approaches as they currently exist. Monitoring ammonia concentrations at all of the required locations with a four-to-six week site visit period, for example,  doesn’t seem workable as there simply aren’t enough staff in the sector. A monitoring regime using an evidence based approach to identify the most effective observation cycles would be much more prudent.

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