DIY River Sensors: The 5 Minute Summary

Here's the high-wire act in which I describe the West Virginia University sensor-journalism project with 20 slides that advance automatically every 15 seconds. This took place in a room of brilliant thinkers at Newsgeist 2015 earlier this month in Phoenix.

More details about the sensor project are available on the StreamLab site and in an earlier blog post.

Make Every Week: Programs in Python

“Daddy, I want to learn Python,” announced my 12-year-old daughter a couple of weeks ago. Boys in her youth group know it, she said. She wanted to, too.

Say no more.

I’ve introduced my daughters to a variety of friendly programming platforms, including Kids Ruby, Hopscotch, Codea and Lua in Minecraft. They’ve sweetly tolerated my programatic prodding. This was the first direct request.

I quickly ordered two paper copies of “Learn Python the Hard Way,” by Zed A Shaw, and we’ve been walking through each lesson together — one every week.

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Make Every Week: Distance Sensor Demo

I stumbled on a fun, visceral way to show how Arduinos can sense and respond.

In preparation for a presentation at the Online News Association Conference in Los Angeles, I grabbed a Ping distance sensor I had in a bin. The Ping works like a bat — it emits an inaudible, high-frequency sound, and listens for the sound to bounce off an object. The round-trip time between ping and reflection reveals the distance.

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Monitoring the Monongahela

Yesterday the Streamlab class put do-it-yourself water monitors into Gatorade bottles and anchored them in the Monongahela River near Morgantown, West Virginia. They’re now texting their data readings live.

The link to the live chart is here, and the raw data is here.

We’re sensing conductivity, which is a good indicator of dissolved solids in the water, and temperature. The locations are: upstream of an industrial site, downstream of the same site and further downstream below the Morgantown lock and dam. 

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Make Every Week: Message From a Bottle

A summer of tinkering has culminated with a conductivity and temperature sensor that texts its data from inside a Gatorade bottle.

The contraption consists of a Riffle, which is an Arduino-like board designed to fit through the mouth of a water bottle and a Fona cell-phone board. And a bottle.

The plan is to submerge several of these along a stretch of the Monongahela River as part of a sensor-journalism class at West Virginia University. It’s a work in progress, but you can [see how things are going]. My job was to build a working conductivity sensor that would report its findings live. Here are the components and how I made it go.

Update: We actually deployed some of these sensors in a river!

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Make Every Week: Sensing Human Touch

Capacitive sensing is how your phone’s touch screen works — basically detecting the natural charge in a person’s body on the screen.

I’ve seen Team Blinky friend Liza Stark play and build simple touch sensors using the same technique with Arduino, so this week I gave it a try.

My goal: Use a touch sensor instead of a button on the Monthly Mood Cube.

It turns out to be pretty easy.

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Make Every Week: Temp -> Text -> Table

Texting temperature data to Twitter is fun, but more useful is sending that information to a table.

That’s what I did this week, as my wanderings into wireless data collection continue: Post the temperature and humidity from my little experiment to a table at

Here are the steps as things stand now:

  1. The sensor reads the data (as in my original post).
  2. The Ardunio formats a message and texts it with a Fona (wiring details here, updated code here).
  3. Instead of texting to Twitter, it now texts to a phone number I bought at Twilio for $1/month.
  4. Twilio then relays that data to my project server in the Amazon cloud as an http “POST” (deets on setting up a cloud server here).
  5. My project server parses the text message, composes a URL with the data, and hits the Sparkfun open data system with that URL (code for that is here).

This all happens in just a few seconds, every 20 minutes.

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