Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Mapping for Cleaner Water

A Bethlehem, PA company shows how to set a course for less polluted waters through innovative technology.
It takes a lot of work for cities to provide clean water for their residents. But it's one of the most important challenges we face today. Our choices on maintaining a clean water system and protecting the watershed have a deep impact on the health and productivity of our nation. The mitigation of storm-water runoff is key to this, and the EPA's MS4 initiative, short for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer System, charts the way for municipalities to implement solutions.

To help with the effort, a new Pennsylvania company called Map Decisions, which has been accepted into the state's acclaimed Ben Franklin TechVentures Incubator program, has developed an innovative GPS software program for monitoring municipal water systems and assisting with MS4's implementation. Home Science recently spoke with Map Decision's CEO, Christian Birch, a Philadelphia native, for details:

What is Map Decisions, how long have you been together, and what is it that you seek to do or do now?

Map Decisions is a company that I recently formed in the beginning of 2012. I've worked for the last 13 years as an engineering consultant primarily supporting local governments, and I saw a great need in assisting local governments in complying with regulatory requirements - in particular one program from the EPA know as the municipal separate storm sewer program (MS4). It requires municipalities to obtain a permit to operate their storm sewer systems, and there are a lot of regulations that are creating both technical and financial burdens for local governments. We are helping local governments implement the permit. Our mission is to help governments improve their efficiency through innovative solutions. Map Decisions seems to redefine the term "moving at the speed of government." For generations that meant moving at a snail's pace. There's a lot of room for improvement. We need to inject innovation and technology and bring efficiency within our government.

Let's look at this subject a slightly different way, and let's take into consideration the EPA's MS4 mandate. The city of Philadelphia recently implemented a 25 year plan for green infrastructure. And the way we're looking at it is that we don't really have the money, the tax money to pay for the infrastructure renovations that are typically needed in big cities. Revenues have shrunk. So what we're doing through some of these mandates is possibly helping us save money. Do you see the positive aspects of green infrastructure and the EPA's MS4 program? Do you see how enacting some of these measures could really benefit cities and actually save tax money - not just from a burden point of view, but from an environmental and tax saving perspective? Do you see value in that?

Yes. There's long term value there. The goals and objectives of the EPA's program are to protect water quality. All the new regulations and the new methods for protecting water quality at the end of the day will make our communities stronger, they will save tax payers money, but there is an upfront cost.

In the last decade there's been a lot of improvement in terms of best management practices. City, state, county and federal governments are all pushing to have more sustainable design practices and preserving water quality. The engineering communities are required to implement best management practices wherever possible.

And these best management practices are part of the MS4. You have the construction phase of storm-water management, and the post construction phase. Construction phase examples are sediment basins that allow sediment in runoff to settle out so that it doesn't go into streams. Another example would be a silt fence - the 18" high fabric fences around construction sites. These are the best management practices for construction phase. Post-construction examples are rain gardens or vegetative bioswales, or porous pavement.

Those would be the so called "low impact tools" that cities and municipalities are beginning to utilize? Low impact, perhaps, because they don't require the city to dig and build larger sewer systems? It takes some of the burden off the sewer system in general by implementing these types of green tools. Is that right?

English: Illustration of a silt fence installa...
Silt fence. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Yes, and encouraging infiltration wherever possible. We need to make sure that we're not exchanging water between watersheds and we need to recharge aquifers. In cities like Philadelphia, it's very costly to expand sewer systems. These low impact solutions do two things: it prevents [cities] from having to do costly upgrades to the storm-sewer network, but it also allows them to improve water quality.

Let's focus a bit more on Map Decisions. What tools do you have to offer related to this?
We're developing one now called MS4 Solutions. It's an information management system. There are two basic components to it. It's a cloud based information system that allows the user to log on and have control of the information management system. The very first thing we do is allow our clients to develop a storm-water management system utilizing our software.

The second side to our system is mobile software. There are two mobile utilities that are tied to our information management system. The first is a mobile inspection utility, and the second is a mobile mapping utility. Both of our mobile utilities use location intelligence to help improve efficiency of data collection and aggregation. Some of the data the EPA is asking for can be difficult to ascertain, such as weather data - when was the last rainfall event and what was the volume of rain in the field where you're inspecting. That's nearly impossible to do when you're sitting out there with [just] a clipboard. The inspectors using our software don't have to worry about that. Once they start an inspection the on-board GPS triggers the intelligence built into our system. Things like the weather data, what watershed they're in, what are the receding waters - all of these things are automatically aggregated for the user utilizing the data models behind our software.

In the near future we will be adding additional modules to our platform that will allow customers to utilize mobile inspection and mapping features for other applications, such as roadways, water and wastewater, and building inspections.

This is primarily for monitoring the existing system or for planning and decision making?

Essentially for monitoring. The EPA wants to make sure we're not contaminating our nation's water. They're trying to encourage monitoring to prevent contamination of our waterways.

Interesting stuff, thank you for your time and good luck with your efforts.

Thank you.

Editorial note: The MS4 mandate covers a wide range of public entities to comply with the EPA's requirements, including local governments, municipal authorities, departments of transportation, hospitals and universities.This information was advised by Mr. Birch in a separate interview.

For more information on Map Decisions, LLC, visit or email them at or contact by phone at 877-277-5789.

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