When there are long thunderstorms, New York City’s sewage infrastructure frequently is overloaded, dumping billions of gallons of untreated sewage into New York City’s waterways. The project dontflush.me, developed by Leif Percifield in 2012, consists of a set of devices that allow New York City residents to attempt to avoid this sewage overflow through a very simple action: not flushing water when there is risk of flooding the release of sewage effluent into waterways.

The main device within the dontflush.me project is a DIY sensor that measures the water level of the Gowanus canal as a means to predict a possible flood. The sensor device includes a proximity sensor, a cell phone, and an XBee network. The second prototype, dontflush.me CSO Sensor v3, was developed collaboratively at a Water Hackathon and introduces two other types of sensors: water temperature sensed through a waterproof digital sensor from Adafruit (since sewage overflows are typically a warmer temperature than the receiving waterbody); and a self-developed electrical conductivity probe that allows for measuring water quality through the conductivity of water, which increases when there is more sewage. In the possible event of an overflow risk, the device then sends an alert by SMS and email to participants, who may decide to participate and respond by rescheduling their daily actions in order to attempt to prevent sewage overflows.

In this project, water pollution is not necessarily sensed by analysing pollutants dissolved in water, but by understanding the processes through which water is polluted at a specific location, in this case a combined sewage system developed in the early 20th century in which sewage and storm-water share the same pipe. When there is a thunderstorm, the relief structure drops untreated content to the river to avoid the collapse of the system.

In this way, while one of the project’s claims is to raise awareness and eventually produce behavioural change, it does this not by proposing citizen participation focused on avoiding pollution directly, but rather by preventing the event that breaks the capacity of a public infrastructure and so leads to pollution. dontflush.me moves away from being an epistemic device that monitors and presents the facts of water pollution, towards a device geared for acting and preventing damage.

This monitoring technology might also be seen to produce other types of engagement by bringing together water pollution in New York City’s waterways, public infrastructure in the form of combined sewers, citizen participation, domestic devices (toilets, showers), everyday practices (flushing water), crowd mapping, environmental events (thunderstorms), ad hoc DIY production (with the dontflush.me sensor), collaborative production (a Water Hackathon), an open-source publication (the code is published on the project webpage), multi-platform design (by engaging with Pachube to upload and visualise the data), and the city (which is a multi-distributed site effected by the use of the sensors). Across all of these connections new arrangements of actors, kit, and practices are joined up through engaging with the local environment.

Image: Don’t flush Me. Source: inhabitat.com

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