This app for iOS will help you easily test your water for lead

Unwittingly drinking contaminated water is an awful thought, and one that’ll thankfully never become a reality for most people. But it’s a nightmare that residents of Flint, Michigan, endured for months when local government officials, eager to trim the beleaguered region’s costs, switched the metro’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. The stream proved highly corrosive to Flint’s aging service lines, many of which contained lead, and resulted in predictable tragedy: residents and their children were exposed to dangerous chemicals that resulted in skin lesions, vision and hair loss, depression and anxiety, and, in severe cases, permanent neurological damage.

“Part of this is empowering people to become their own guardians and watchdogs, so they can double check what’s going on.”

It’s been two years since the Flint, Michigan water crisis began, and the problem persists even after the media attention has died down. History, if forgotten, is doomed to repeat itself, which is why Sean Montgomery, a neuroscientist and the CEO of technology company Connected Future Labs, created a mobile app that provides an easy way for citizens to test their home town’s water quality. It’s called CitizenSpring, and it launched on Kickstarter in early August.

“When I first heard about Flint, I immediately thought: wow. Permanent brain damage in kids? Kidney problems? Not good,” Montgomery told Digital Trends. “And as the year went on, it became clear that it wasn’t just a Flint problem.” He cited a study published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, which found that more than 40 percent of states that reported 2014 lead test results showed higher rates of lead poisoning among children than Flint. “Now that people are aware there could be a problem, people are become aware there is a problem,” Montgomery said.

Montgomery’s initial solution involved tapping the government’s data on water quality. But there’s shocking dearth of data. It turns out only 27 states have reported childhood blood lead surveillance over the past two years, and in Texas, a state with a child population that exceeds 2 million, only 184 kids have received testing for lead poisoning.

An app seemed like an appropriate alternative. Smartphones, Montogomery reasoned, are essentially ubiquitous in the U.S. He’s not wrong — research firm eMarketer predicts the number of smartphone users in the U.S. will reach more than 236 million by 2019, or 71 percent of total people in the country. “It seemed like the quickest, easiest, and cheapest option,” he said. Specifically, Montgomery envisioned software that would guide users through the process of testing a water line, faucet, drinking fountain, or any other water source of potential concern. Users would buy an off-the-shelf, $10 strip test from a local supply store, stick it in the water, and the app would do the rest.

citizenspring ios lead cases

Lead testing isn’t exactly Connected Future Labs’ area of expertise — its website describes it as a “research and development” company — but it deals frequently and often with the technologies underlying Montgomery’s vision. It recently developed a technology that digitizes electronic medical records, for instance, and another that captures detailed 3D scans of the human body. “A central tenant of what we do is connecting the dots between different data points and different people,” he said. “And we’ve done a lot of object recognition.”

To that end, Montgomery and his team built an app capable not only of walking users through the process of conducting lead strip tests, but interpreting the results. By leveraging what Montgomery described as “computer vision,” the app is able to automatically tell whether lead levels in a given water source are within the EPA’s “safe” threshold. You hold a test strip up to your phone’s camera, press a button, and the app spits out the results. It even works offline.

The app’s second component is a crowdsourced database. Every test result is cataloged with the tester’s geographic coordinates, uploaded to cloud storage, and charted on a digital map. The intention is two-pronged: to inform folks of nearby water conditions, and, ultimately, to affect change.

“It’s an impoverished data problem,” said Montgomery. “We don’t have enough data. By sharing the results of test, people can, say, find out if they’re testing a faucet that hasn’t been tested before.”

At launch, CitizenSpring will remain relatively limited in scope. It’ll only test for lead, though Montgomery said support for additional strips could be added in the future. It’s launching on iOS first, with an Android version to come down the line. And it won’t integrate data from other sources, like government agencies and third-parties. But a streamlined experience was the intention from the start, said Montgomery: “We decided to make it as simple as we could.”

Montgomery hopes the app will encourage citizens to become stewards of their community’s water supply. “The people who are testing the water today sometimes have mixed incentives,” he said. Case in point: a 2011 Michigan study found that water from the Flint River would need to be treated with an anti-corrosion agent before it could be considered potable, a measure that experts estimate would have prevented “90 percent” of Flint’s water supply problems. “Part of this is empowering people to become their own guardians and watchdogs, so they can double check what’s going on and make sure that attention is being focused in the right places,” Montgomery said.

If you’d like to back the project or learn more, head to the Kickstarter campaign.


Driving a prototype 2020 Passat at Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground

Volkswagen’s Arizona Proving Ground is where new cars are tested to the breaking point, including the 2020 Passat midsize sedan. Ride along as the new Passat completes testing ahead of its 2019 launch.

Drink what nature provides with the best water purifiers

Looking for reliable water purification? Staying hydrated is important, especially when you are hiking or camping far from civilization. Check out our picks of the best water purifiers for your camp, backpack, or pocket.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.

Has Columbus, Ohio raised its IQ yet? A progress report from the mayor

Two years ago, the city of Columbus in Ohio received $40 million to pursue smart city initiatives. So, what’s happened since then? We spoke with its mayor, Andrew Ginther, to discuss progress and what’s ahead.
Product Review

The Black Shark gaming phone takes a big bite out of your free time, but the software sinks it

The world is being treated to an ever-increasing number of high-powered gaming phones. With so many great options already out, is there room for another? The Black Shark thinks so. But is it any good? We find out.

These are the best smartwatches for everything from fashion to fitness

Tempted to buy a smartwatch? If so, then the growing number of great models available means you've got plenty to choose from. But which one should you pick? Here is our list of the best smartwatches.

Amazon slashes price of 2018 iPad to under $250 in time for Christmas

Whether you love Apple or prefer Android, this 2018 iPad 32GB tablet deal is rather tempting. If you're still on the hunt for gifts, then this deep discount from Amazon makes now an excellent time to pick one up.

Sprint’s 5G rollout: Everything you need to know

Sprint is building its next-gen 5G network in preparation for a 2019 rollout, but it's taking a decidedly different approach than some of its competitors, including Verizon and AT&T. Here's everything you need to know.

The Galaxy S10 may be announced before MWC, sell for up to $1,750

While we still may be months away from an announcement, there's no doubt about it: Samsung is working hard on its successor to the Galaxy S9. Here's everything we know about the upcoming Samsung Galaxy S10.

How to use the ECG app, set up irregular rhythm notifications on the Apple Watch

The Apple Watch Series 4 is the best smartwatch iPhone owners can own, and it just got even better with the addition of the ECG app and ability to identify irregular heart rhythms. Here's how to set it all up.
Home Theater

Common AirPods problems, and how to fix them

Apple’s AirPods are among the best fully wireless earbuds we’ve seen, but they’re not perfect. If you’re having trouble, take a look at our guide to the most common problems and what you can do to fix them.

The LG V40 ThinQ, G7 ThinQ, and Watch W7 are discounted for the holidays

LG announced a series of deals for the holiday season where you can buy the company's two flagship phones, the V40 ThinQ and G7 ThinQ, as well as its latest smartwatch, for between $150 and $200 off, depending on the device.

5G’s arrival is transforming tech. Here’s everything you need to know to keep up

It has been years in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. While 5G coverage is still extremely limited, expect to see it expand in 2019. Not sure what 5G even is? Here's everything you need to know.

Midrange phones can’t do A.I., but MediaTek’s P90 chip aims to change that

MediaTek has announced the Helio P90 mobile processor, which it says will bring the best A.I. features we see on high-end smartphones, to the mid-range. We spoke to the company about the chip.