Resident's app to let users map water fountains

Photo: Berkeley resident Peter Gleick has been working with Google to develop a smartphone app for mapping drinking fountains.
Edwin Cho/Staff
Berkeley resident Peter Gleick has been working with Google to develop a smartphone app for mapping drinking fountains.

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A smartphone application developed by a Berkeley resident seeks to reduce the consumption of bottled water by providing information about the locations of public water fountains.

Peter Gleick, the president and cofounder of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security, has been working with Google for the past few months to develop this new application that allows users to locate and input the locations of nearby water fountains. The beta version will be available this week to approximately a dozen volunteers who will map fountain locations around Berkeley and the rest of the East Bay using the automatic GPS on their phones.

The goal is to provide public information nationwide about water fountains - where they are, what their condition is and how to find them - while simultaneously making it easier for people to wean themselves off of bottled water because free tap water will now be easier to find, Gleick said.

"One of the reasons I think more and more people are buying bottled water is because public drinking water fountains are disappearing," Gleick said. "It's easier and easier to find commercial bottled water."

Gleick said he believes bottled water is an expensive, unnecessary and environmentally damaging product. Having written about this topic in his book "Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water," he said on top of causing serious environmental problems due to the excess of plastic bottles, bottled water is 2,000 to 3,000 times more expensive to produce than tap water. This is unnecessary because the United States, in general, provides very safe tap water, he said.

With the application, users will also be able to upload pictures of a water fountain, add comments and provide information such as whether the fountain's water is warm or chilled. All of this information goes to a publicly available open-source database, Gleick said.

Once the operational version is ready, the next step is to launch it nationwide through various sources of social media, he said. The publicly available version is expected to be out in the next month or two.

UC Berkeley senior and director of the ASUC Sustainability Team Rose Whitson had a similar goal of reducing waste and encouraging UC Berkeley students to use refillable canteens with the "End the Sale of Bottled Water Initiative" - a statement of support to ban the sale of bottled water on campus, which was passed in this year's ASUC General Election.

"I think (Gleick's application is) a great start because such a tool would enable not only access to water, but also, a better feedback mechanism for maintenance and reporting," said Whitson in an email.

Brian McDonald, chair of the city's Community Environmental Advisory Commission, said whenever there is public feedback, the commission tries to see what sort of action the city can take.

"It would be interesting to look at what the findings are and if this is something that the commission should look into," McDonald said.

Though the application is currently available only on Android smartphones, Gleick said he hopes to expand onto other platforms, such as the iPhone. Once the application is fully in operation, a map of fountain locations will be available on a website.

Gleick said the entries are reviewed to prevent false information, but over time crowd-sourcing will be a preventive measure against misinformation, as other users can give contrasting reviews to correct these mistakes.

"We're in a new era when more and more public information will be available to us on our smartphones," he said. "One piece of that information is safe drinking water."


Contact Weiru at [email protected]

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