The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 3

Part three of a three-part blog series on the use and benefits of SaaS solutions for the environmental community.
Digital Services
September 27, 2023
The Benefits of SaaS for the Environmental Community: Part 3

This blog is Part 3 of a three-part series exploring the use of Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions in the environmental community. In this series, we introduce readers to the concept of SaaS and the positives and negatives of its use in the environmental sector. We will also discuss The Commons' use of SaaS workflows to support environmental data management and publishing, a strategy that is cost-effective and widely adaptable for environmental organizations of all sizes. Part 1 of this series gives an introduction to SaaS and its positives and negatives; Part 2 looks into how SaaS solutions can be used across water, land, and air sectors in the environmental community as well as the decision-making process behind its use; and Part 3 introduces three organizations working with  The Commons to implement SaaS workflows to better serve and protect their local communities and natural resources.

The Commons has always been dedicated to helping our partners solve the latest problems facing the environmental movement by providing personalized expertise in environmental data and its application towards conservation and restoration. We’ve begun working with clients to implement dedicated SaaS workflows for things like water quality data management and public communication. With the growing list of unique use cases organizations present to us, we realized custom-built software platforms don't scale to fully serve this diverging demand. The unifying need is to build a reliable data management system as the foundation for other functionality and use nodes.

We’ve grown our Digital Services program to offer customized solutions and support for a wide variety of customer use cases, by leaning on third-party systems, also known as SaaS offerings, to provide solutions for our clients. Below we overview three projects underway at The Commons. These project partners exemplify the use of SaaS workflows to solve unique problems in relation to environmental data management.

Use Case #1: Trash Monitoring in the Anacostia River

An Anacostia trash trap (Photo courtesy of Robbie O'Donnell)

The Anacostia River is one of the most polluted rivers in the United States when it comes to litter and debris. As one of only a handful of rivers in the U.S. with a total maximum daily load (TMDL) for trash, the Anacostia requires constant action from the District of Columbia and Maryland to reduce the amount of trash in the watershed. In the District, trash reduction is done in a variety of different strategies. One way is through the installation of passive in-river trash collectors that trap litter and allow it to be removed from the stream. Recently, the District awarded a grant to the non-profit Anacostia Riverkeeper so that they can work with their partners to manage and clean out trash traps on a regular basis. They report data about the clean-out efforts to the District for inclusion in their TMDL reporting. To manage this massive data collection effort, Anacostia Riverkeeper partnered with The Commons. The Commons assisted in the creation of a data collection form, a database to store all the data from different sources, and a publicly accessible dashboard to keep the community up to date on the amount of trash being pulled from the river in the District.

Having previously worked with Anacostia Riverkeeper on a similar project that tracks the amount of trash collected from their volunteer cleanups, we already had the SaaS tools on hand to address this more complex data use case. Using just an Airtable database connected with an ESRI dashboard, Anacostia Riverkeeper will be able to collect a wide variety of field data like the amount and type of trash removed all while feeding it easily into their Airtable database with a simple online collection form. This data will then be updated in real-time on a Feature Service that populates an ArcGIS online dashboard. The data will be shared with the public to track the cleanup process over time and delivered to the DC Government in a data structure that meets their reporting needs.

Use Case #2: Real-Time and Volunteer Water Monitoring

With increased access to monitoring technology and its affordability, local-watershed-scale water quality monitoring groups across the country are able to collect more comprehensive real-time environmental data. The Commons has recently started working with Murrysville Area Watershed Association (MAWA) in Pennsylvania to implement a SaaS workflow to fortify their growing water quality program and better manage their data. After evaluating the needs of the program and flow of data, The Commons and MAWA created a structured work plan to string together third-party systems and create a workflow that would allow (1) the linking of an MAWA Airtable water quality database to previously installed in-situ sensors collecting real-time stream data; (2) the use of a mobile field collection app for discrete samples; (3) a structured water quality database; and (4) an ESRI dashboard to convey water quality data to the public.

The Murrysville Area Watershed Association region of focus (photo courtesy of MAWA)

The biggest need in this use case was a structured and connected water quality database that could both receive data from multiple sources as well as push that data to a publicly available dashboard. While this scenario is not uncommon in the water quality space, the complex mix of data sources as well as the need to share the data in a publicly palatable way necessitated strong API connections as well as robust and customizable mapping options for proper visualizations. This SaaS workflow will pull both real-time time stream data and discrete sampling data, aggregate the discrete data sets in a single database, and then share all data via a web application with the public. On top of that, this workflow is scalable, allowing MAWA to seamlessly add more monitoring sites across their work area with no disruption in their field schedule or data flow.

Use Case #3: Sharing Water Quality Data with the Community 

Publicly available water quality data has become increasingly important over the last decade as community members become more aware of threats to their local waterways. Sierra Streams Institute (SSI) has collected important water quality data along the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas for years and serves as a clean water leader for the community around Nevada City. SSI has recently partnered with us to revamp their water data management and allow for more of their data to get into the hands of the public. With years of data already collected, we needed to move all the data into an easily navigable database that could then be linked to public visualizations, allowing for real-time updating and tracking of water quality parameters.

Thankfully, due to the wide availability of SaaS data management platforms and the consistent, high-quality nature of SSI’s data, the creation and adoption of a workflow to fit SSI’s needs can be achieved in a matter of months as opposed to dragging on for years, as would be the case if a custom developed platform were to be created. Using the SaaS platforms Airtable and ArcOnline, SSI and The Commons are currently working to transfer existing water quality data into the newly created database and data model in Airtable; with a publicly available data dashboard to be linked and developed by the end of October 2023.