Reporting beach contamination? There’s an app for that.

Need to find a beach near Lake Ontario where it’s safe to swim? There’s an app for that.

A new iPhone app allows users to quickly check the swimming safety levels at their favorite beaches. Image via the iTunes store.

The Lake Ontario Waterkeeper – a Toronto-based group  dedicated to the health of the Lake Ontario watershed – has developed an application for the iPhone called the Swim Guide.

Think of it as a comprehensive guide to all swimming areas in and around Lake Ontario. You can search for beaches closest to you and learn a little about the history of the area. Post your beach location to your Facebook or your Twitter. Get directions instantly as you head off on your weekend vacation.

Information is collected and organized into a database by the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper. Local health authorities take samples from each beach and post the results online, where the Waterkeeper organizes those results into a comprehensive database.

Although the app focuses on Lake Ontario, vice-president of the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Krystyn Tully said they hope to expand it soon to cover all of the Great Lakes.

“The app will cover all of the Great Lakes both in Canada and the U.S.,” she said. “Those beaches are currently hidden because we’re still proofreading everything. In the next couple of weeks it will cover all the Great Lakes and the website will be up and running.”

Tully said once the database was up and running for Ontario, it was a fairly simple manner to widen the information base to include the rest of the Great Lakes.

“Once we created the database and the technology, it was only a marginal amount of extra work to include the other Great Lakes beaches, and the users we spoke to about the guide really wanted this service,” she said. “We found that people who live in the Lake Ontario watershed actually travel all over the Great Lakes to swim.”

The app doesn’t officially launch until June, Tully said. The Lake Ontario Waterkeeper submitted the app early to Apple, Inc., not knowing how long the approval process would take.

Possibly the best feature the app offers is its color-coded beach safety notifications. Each beach is rated for pollution and shoreline contamination and rated by color so you can immediately see how safe it is to swim in a particular area.

“It’s red, yellow and green, just like you’d see on a stop light,” Tully said. “The standard we use for saying whether a beach is green light or clean is based on the province of Ontario standard of beaches. (Green) would say a beach is open at least 95% of swimming season.”

As the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper started asking about water samplings and postings from each beach and digging into the beachfront safety levels, Tully said, the availability of that information increased exponentially.

“The level of transparency goes through the roof once they know people are actually interested in the beaches,” she said. “We hope to see the same results across the Great Lakes and maybe we’ll get recognition for being an amazing swimming place.”

Funding for the app came from two grants from the Royal Bank of Canada Blue Water Project: one to create a database of safe swimming beaches and another to launch the app. Tully said once the Swim Guide website is running, the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper will begin development on other smartphone versions, such as one for the Android phone.

Is this where the future of beachfront preservation is headed? Can a social media tool like an iPhone app really help protect Great Lakes shoreline? Is this an app you would download?

4 thoughts on “Reporting beach contamination? There’s an app for that.

  1. I love your app!
    I want to swim every day in the summer, in Lakes, not pools.
    I live in central Toronto.
    I am swimming in Lake Ontario now most days and getting a following of friends coming with me.
    I want to be really sure I’m not misleading them in terms of water safety.
    I know the designated beach test for e-coli.
    How can I be sure the contaminants / pollutants levels aren’t high?
    Is e-coli testing a determiner of pollutants?
    I know you might not be the right person to ask but your so well research I thought I’d try my luck.

    One other comment:
    almost all the designated beaches in Toronto are in the east end.
    If traffic or parking is bad, which it often is, you can’t get east easily from the west end. We need more designated West end beaches.
    I swim at Humber Bay west park, a non- designated beach. It often looks and smells much better than Sunnyside Beach.
    I wish Humber Bay West Park Beach could become a designated beach.
    All the best in swimming,
    Roberta

  2. Pingback: Reporting beach contamination? There’s an app for that. « theriver.me

  3. Hi Sandy – I completely agree with your comments about algae. We are building a couple of safeguards into the Swim Guide so that people will get a good picture of beach health. The historical status tracks water quality over several years, so people not only know what the current status is but they will know the historical trend. Bacteria is pretty short-lived, but there may be other longer-lived nasties from sewage that would make someone choose not to swim at a frequently-posted beach. We also have a “special status” option so we can manually override the green/yellow/red rating to deal with algae, questionable sampling procedures, construction activities, or other important issues that wouldn’t show up if we rely solely on E. coli results. There’s a new feature in an upcoming update to the app that will provide phone number/website of the official monitoring authority. And our own reporting tool allows people us to notify us instantly if there is a pollution problem or spill that needs to be addressed. The website version of the Guide will also allow people to compare beach policies so we can identify best practices – many jurisdictions post a beach when there is an algae problem but some do not. By comparing what agencies are doing in a variety of jurisdictions we can figure out what works the best to protect people and the environment.

  4. Swimming advisories should include testing of algae located on the beaches to determine if it is toxic – a health hazard.
    To tell people it is ok to swim because ecoli counts are low is not right if there is toxic algae on the beach.
    The message of ‘ok to swim’ when there is untested potentially algae on the beach is a real problem.

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