Monday, September 5, 2011

GeoTech Review: USGS WaterAlert service

This past week on Thursday, Sept. 1st, the USGS tweeted out the following:

"Smart Phones Know When Rivers Rise...with USGS WaterAlert #usgsnews"

The link takes you here:  to the USGS news release page, which describes the release of a new service called WaterAlert.  I assumed from the tweet that the announcement was for a smart phone app, the kind of thing people download on their android or iphone that uses the capabilities of portable computing.  My mind immediately started thinking of the potentials for combining real-time and historical stream data with all the functionality that comes with a smartphone or tablet, such as an app that shows stream gage height and discharge data, options for "nearby my location" and "search any location", a map view with interactive capabilities, some flood stage warnings/notifications, perhaps some water level & quality forecasts (floods do eventually move downstream, after all), and maybe even some way to work in links to pictures or videos.  That could be pretty cool!  That capability would be very useful for scientists & people in the media out in the field, especially when rivers are rising past flood stage and people or property are potentially in danger.

You Know What Happens When You Assume
Unfortunately that's not quite where we're at.  The WaterAlert service doesn't require a smartphone, in fact it doesn't even require a phone at all for using the service.  To sign up, you click over to, which is linked in the instructions given in the link above.  This page takes a bit of time to load.  The service requires that you choose a single, specific USGS river gage site, and then it will either send you a text to your phone or send you an email based on your preference.  There are several other options to choose from, such as whether you'll get hourly or daily notifications, whether you'd like gage height or discharge data (apparently you can't get both, in a single notification, however), and you can set it so that you only receive these notifications if the data reach parameters you set, such as above or below a certain value, inbetween values, etc.  You get to pick what you want those parameters to be, so to test it out I chose to get notifications when discharge was between 1 and 100,000 cfs for a couple of sites on a fairly large river nearby.

Subscribing to the System
To choose a site at the WaterAlert website, you must first select a state from a list on the left.  There is a map in the center of the page showing the locations of thousands of USGS StreamGage sites in the U.S., but it isn't clickable, at least not at first.  Once you click on a state and on a data type (surface water, groundwater, water quality, or precipitation), then the map zooms to that dataset (e.g., all IL surface water sites) and becomes interactive.  The map is based on googlemaps and so has much of the typical functionality (zooming, panning, and basemap types).  If you select a new state, it will jump to it and show the stations there.  If you zoom back out, the map will still show the stations for the first state you chose as clickable options, so you can see the stations for a large number of states at a time if you like.  However, it will only show one data type at a time - clicking on "Groundwater" after first choosing "Surface Water" will change all the icons in all the states you've clicked on from surface water to ground water, and so on.  At this point, if you mouseover a data station on the map, you'll get an info box showing the name of the station.  Clicking on a station gets you a larger pop-out box that shows the name of the site, the USGS Site Number, and most recent discharge and gage height data.  There is a box at the bottom of the call-out window to subscribe to the data from that site.

Clicking on the subscribe requires that you allow a pop-up borwser window, which brings up the subscription form.  There you enter your email address, phone# if you prefer text messages, and set your preferences for recieving the data.  The first thing you get is an email that you must respond to in order to confirm your subscription, even if you only want text messages, which is typical protocol for most any internet service you want to sign up for.

A major limitation of the service is that you have to submit a subscription to every single data site that you are interested in.  If you want stream gage height data for 3 locations, you'll need to submit 3 subscriptions and confirm each one.  If you want water quality data or information on groundwater, those are different subscriptions.  The problem is obvious - if you really want to follow what's going on in a region, you're going to need a whole lot of subscriptions.  

Notifications by Text and Email
A short time after confirming my subscriptions, I got my first text from  I then got another 19 minutes later; not sure why the second was necessary, but after that the messages started coming either every hour or every 24 hours, depending on the settings.  But, all of the text messages for a single subscription are the same - you get a link.  I was surprised to see that there wasn't any actual data contained within the text message.  The link takes you to a USGS WaterAlert Help page.  Even here, there was no data!  It shows your subscription information, a link to the real time data for the site you've chosen, and a number of "help" links/info for modifying your subscription.  This help page includes your cell number listed on it, with your provider info, otherwise I'd show you a link to see what the page looks like.  When you click on the realtime data link, you'll get a gage site specific page such as this one: By default, it shows all the data for the site (in this case both discharge and gage height) for the past 7 days in a couple of graphs.

But there is an obvious problem - if you don't have internet access and a web browser on your phone, the link doesn't do you much good.  So the text messages really are only good for smart phones and feature phones that minimally have access to websites.  This isn't at all obvious from the sign-up page!  If the text messages contained the actual data that you've subscribed to, then you could use this service on any cell phone that allows text messaging.

If on the other hand you choose to get email notifications, then it is a bit different.  The email message contains actual data - essentially the measurement you requested (e.g., streamflow of  77 cfs) as well as the subscription limits that you set, the time & date of the current measurement, the stream gage number and name, and your notification interval.  It also contains a link for the real time data at the specific station, just like the link shown above, as well as some help links.

Final Thoughts
Now let me first say that I think the USGS is a great organization and it is one that I think is woefully underfunded.  I'm a big fan of the USGS and what they do.

But the bottom line is that this system wasn't nearly as useful or interesting as I had hoped it would be.  The text notifications aren't terribly useful, especially not every hour since the text simply sends you the same link, over and over, every hour.  Once you've got the link from one text message, you can simply check it as often as you like and there is no need to receive the same link as a text every hour or even every day.  The email notifications are more useful since it sends actual data.  But, as is evident from my description of the service above, there aren't a lot of bells and whistles here to get really excited about, and this could clutter up your inbox pretty quickly.  It could be useful if you want to be notified when a stream reaches flood stage, because you could set the parameters so that you only get notifications when gage height or discharge reach those values.  But if you really want to know what's going on with the water in an area of interest, probably the best thing to do is still go directly to the USGS website at and surf around the various gage sites to gather the information you want.

I'm hopeful that at some point someone will write an application for smart phones that can retrieve the data and organize it in a map format so that it can be more easily seen at a glance.  Until then....