How do we design holistically for water stewardship? Open Droplet at #LOTE4

I’ve often had a niggling bothersome thought about IoT (Internet of Things), in that it seems always to put the onus on the individual to make change. I’m all for collective action, and responsible attitudes to the environment, but sometimes the stats don’t lie – if industry is guzzling more gas than domestic users, and if the plastics industry pollutes more than one country’s yearly car usage, there’s only so much of a dent that the public are going to make in our juggernaut progress to ecological and climate catastrophe. We have to look at the situation as a whole, something that I think it’s increasingly important to incorporate into our quantified, sensor strewn lives.

Open Droplet Logo

That’s been the aim when it comes to design for Open Droplet, in this case – what if water leakage outstrips domestic water use, for instance? The key question, is how do we facilitate citizens, communities, cities and infrastructure providers to take care of this precious resource? It’s a concept and question that I’m delighted to be bringing to my forthcoming session at LOTE4: The Stewardship later this month in Matera, Italy.

I’d really love it, in the spirit of openness, LOTE and Open Droplet, if you’d take a look at the session. Even if you can’t make it there, I’d love to hear what you think about the proposition. What’s important and what should we be bearing in mind when designing for a holistic approach to water stewardship? What approaches can we generalise as a holistic IoT methodology?



Are you happy to #Fail in public?

Failure. It’s a dirty word. We’ve been having lots of discussions about openness in the process around building Droplet. (We’ve decided on Open Droplet actually as the next iteration of the name!) It’s something I feel really resonates with me, and I am excited about the exploration of this space. I particularly am interested in the idea of exploring failing in public, as a companion to the severe problem pervading research of not reporting negative results.

Photo Credit ''
Photo Credit ‘’

I was at a conference as a PhD student a few years ago, presenting some of my research into the behaviour of transition metal pollutants and carbonate minerals. As a preamble to some positive results, I reported some negative results. During the discussion after my talks, a professor from another university raised his hand and informed me: “We attempted the same thing a few years ago, and we couldn’t find anything either.” Of course, had there been a culture of publishing negative as well as positive results, instead of spending 3 months on reproducing those negative results, I could have used the time to research something that wasn’t already known. (As an aside, I look forward to the day when we have a way to search through all peer reviewed literature on a topic regardless of language). There are some journals dedicated specifically to negative results, such as the Journal of Negative Results, and the Journal of Negative Results in Biomedicine. Though I can’t help but feel that siloing the results into special journals still makes them seem either an afterthought or somehow undesirable.

Of course, it’s difficult to admit failure, and there is always the fear that the judgement will be on yourself rather than limited to the work. A few years ago Fail Faire popped up, creating an open space where people could discuss failure. After a couple of years, the movement seems to have petered out – or failed to continue, as it were. It’d be nice to know why. The rhetoric around failure has changed a little, but are we still unable to accept admissions of failure? Even if we “fail fast, fail often”, is it still uncomfortable to fail openly?


This actually makes me wonder… how will our approach to failure change as our digital legacy continues. You look at, say the recent Justin Bieber racism debacle – he was recorded as a youngster repeating a terrible racist joke, and it came back to bite him in the backside years later. I’m not commenting on the content of this – the joke and the cultural repercussions are terrible. It does exemplify the point, however, that we each have a digital legacy that we cannot easily escape. And as we can increasingly see each others’ failures, has that perhaps (and sadly) made us less forgiving and more judgemental? If so, what would facilitate a change in this towards forgiveness and understanding rather than ridicule and outrage?


Designing for the Droplet water flow metre

We are heading for a global water crisis – and we know it. I’m not going to hammer the point home here, as there is a ton of background info out there about why it’s important to reduce unnecessary water usage, from rainy London’s counter-intuitive drought through massive subsidence in California from overuse of groundwater to the environmental and geopolitical challenges of the Middle East’s water shortages.

So, I’m working on a quantified self/ citizen science project with tech-for-social-impact company iilab alongside engineer Sam Carlisle to develop an open source water flow metre, Droplet, that allows users to easily monitor the amount of water coming out of their faucets and showers – and maybe even their loos – and, if they so desire, to share it with a community of similarly interested individuals to gather usage data and see how monitoring – and a device that interacts with you in real time – can change water usage.

We are particularly focussing on collecting shower data, as this is an area where most of us can easily reduce our water usage without compromising on hygiene. And we’re making the device open source so that people can hack it and come up with their own wonderously creative forms of feedback to the user in real time.

One of my favourite ideas for realtime feedback is a series of sardonic audio recordings triggered by specific levels of water usage. So, if you end up using a vast amount of water, you might end up hearing a depressive recording of Stevie Smith’s Not Waving But Drowning [you can hear a recording, along with a load of other great poems, here – though it’s not as depressive as I’d like for Droplet].

Anyway, here’s our first meeting working on Droplet – I’m taking the IT idea of a sandpit rather literally here 🙂 – making the most of the gorgeous spring weather.

Kat and Sam C courtyard