A mysterious new attraction has been seen bobbing in the East River off Pier 17 this fall—a glowing 50-foot plus sign. The floating sculpture, a data visualization beacon called + POOL Light, changes color according to the physical conditions of the water, making water quality updates easily accessible to the public.
Designed by PLAYLAB, INC. and Family New York with Friends of + POOL, the sculpture updates according to a sensor installed in the pier’s water by Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s (LDEO) scientist Dr. Wade McGillis. The project coordinates the efforts of multiple community groups seeking to reclaim the water, in a first attempt to communicate real-time data of NYC’s water quality in visual form.
The sculpture glows blue when the water is safe for recreational use and turns pink when pollution levels exceed swimming standards. The direction of the lights change according to the water’s currents, turning clockwise when flowing north, and counterclockwise when flowing south. The brightness, frequency, and sharpness of the light is correlated to levels of oxygen, turbidity, and pH of the water, respectively.
Shawnee Traylor, a science and technology advisor for the project, formerly at LDEO and currently at MIT/WHOI, developed a site-specific algorithm with McGillis that predictively measures the water’s quality based on historical data.
“For the light sculpture specifically we built an algorithm that is based off of precipitation. Every time it rains our rain gauge records how much precipitation fell. One of the primary controls [of fecal bacteria] in New York City waterways are the Combined Sewer Overflows (CSO),” said Traylor.
Traylor described the area the sensor covers at the pier as a point measurement. “How much area that covers depends on the flow of the water. One thing that’s kind of unique about New York’s waterways is that the direction of the tide can switch quite often, sometimes twice a day. So that can tell you the different water masses that are mixing and causing your local water quality.”
But how clean is the water at Pier 17?
“Generally speaking the water is much better than people think,” said Traylor. Changing currents and flow of water at Pier 17 allow potential contaminants to flush out of the site. “Anyone that wants to get in the water should make an informed and educated decision, which is why we think it’s so important that water quality data is available to the public in a way that is easy to understand,” Traylor said.
The notion of visualizing everyday data for the general public is ripe with possibility in Traylor’s eyes. Imagine looking at the Empire State Building and seeing how the air is doing today or going to Central Park and seeing how much carbon is being sequestered. “I think that interfacing with data every day would really shape the consciousness of our communities and maybe even change our actions,” said Traylor.
The sculpture demonstrates the algorithm’s prediction of fecal indicator bacteria (enterococcus); based on World Health Organization advisories, the safe level for swimming or recreational use of the water is below 35 colony forming units (CFUs). (Currently the East River levels off Pier 17 have remained below 35 during this testing period.)
The technology behind the algorithm, the ALERT system by Fluidion, was developed in Paris, France with one of the first applications at Le Bassin de la Villette, which opened for public swimming in 2017. The innovation of the technology contains water quality testing within a single portable unit, making it possible to collect and analyze the data more quickly.
“Until we developed this technology, everything relied on manual samples. The lab basically sending somebody to take a water sample, put it in a cooler, bring it back to the lab and then get a result,” said Dan Angelescu, CEO and R&D Director of Fluidion. “Now we have the ability to sort of miniaturize the lab in a small device that’s fully automatic, that operates on battery and sends its data remotely. It can be installed easily anywhere,” Angelescu said. The technology is being used in the Seine for the 2024 Olympics, has applications in the UK, and is currently being introduced in the U.S.
Friends of + POOL hope the sculpture will bring more awareness about public access to the city’s waterfront. “Hopefully it’ll open up or continue the dialogue that we’ve been pushing, as well as the many amazing water enthusiasts around New York, that this is our river,” said Kara Meyer, Managing Director of Friends of + POOL.
The making of + POOL Light is also part of an ongoing effort to build a self-filtering + POOL that would float in the East River. (Recently, the EDC announced they are seeking Expressions of Interest from parties with viable thoughts on “developing, installing, and operating a self‐filtering swim facility to be located in the East River off lower Manhattan.”)
“We learned a lot. Building anything in the river is a pretty complicated process,” said Meyer. “We want to make sure it’s safe and sustainable. The permitting of this project took a lot of time and taught us a lot about how to build in the water.”
Hear reporter Clarisa Diaz talk about + POOL Light on WNYC’s All Things Considered:
(Lighting Fabrication & Installation: Floating Point & Connected Future Labs. Lighting Structure Fabrication Support: Beam Center Apprentice Program)