May 5, 2011 By Brian Heaton
If you’ve ever wondered why public drinking fountain stations have seemingly evaporated from communities, you’re not alone.
Dr. Peter Gleick, a water expert and president of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit research organization focused on sustainability, has joined forces with Google to develop WeTap, an application that will soon allow your smartphone to lead you to water.
The free app was created to find, support and expand the number of drinking fountains throughout the United States. Users are able to find working public drinking fountains and add drinking station locations to a database right from their phones, including photos and details on the fountain’s condition.
Gleick explained that while writing his book, Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water, it occurred to him that it was becoming increasingly difficult to find clean and functioning public drinking fountains. The app is an attempt to fill that knowledge gap.
WeTap uses a smartphone’s GPS system to automatically record the user’s location. The user can then input information on water taste, temperature, flow and other criteria. Currently the app is only available for those with Android smartphones.
Gleick explained his organization partnered with Google for WeTap’s development because the company offered developer time for free, which fit in with his vision for the app.
“Google is open source and the whole idea of this app is it being free,” Gleick said. “Free access to maps, users contribute for free and I just happen to own an Android phone. We’ve been unable to find an iPhone developer who will work for free, but inevitably, [the app] has to be available for everybody.”
Twenty-four beta testers have been mapping public drinking fountain locations as of Thursday, May 5. Gleick said the beta test area was originally limited to Berkeley, Calif., but testers have begun mapping drinking fountains in big cities like Washington D.C., and Cleveland, Ohio.
Gleick has noticed that users in California are starting to get competitive about mapping, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Jose.
“So we’ve decided we’re going to expand mapping a little bit to cover the Bay Area and Los Angeles and spur a little north-south [rivalry],” he said.
The beta test for WeTap will go on for another few weeks before all the feedback will be incorporated into an official public version of the app. More information on how to be a part of the beta test group is located on WeTap’s website.
Non-testers can currently access the map where drinking fountain locations have been plotted without the ability to enter data.
“We’re just at the beginning stages with the beta test version, but it is already clear that while the fountains are out there, lots of them are broken,” Gleick said.
Maybe the app will help fix them. Public water agencies are interested in collecting the app’s data on broken water fountains so they can determine what entity is responsible for maintaining them.
“Right now, we can identify a broken fountain, but we don’t know who owns it,” Gleick admitted. “The next phase, in the longer term, [the app] will put pressure on those responsible for water fountains to fix them and perhaps put in a few new ones.”
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