‘Circuit Cobbling’ the Riffle Data Logger

I always considered circuit boards like this something you bought, not something you made.

Not any more.

I actually helped to make the board in the picture above. And it was awesome fun.

‘Circuit Cobbling’ the Riffle Data Logger

The board is designed to monitor the conductivity (and, possibly, contamination) of water in lakes and streams, with the wonderful feature that it fits through the mouth of a regular water bottle. It’s called Riffle and it is the brainchild of Don Blair, who’s working with Public Lab and the MIT Center for Civic Media. This week I had the honor of working with Don at MIT.

Riffles + Journalism

I first heard of Riffle during a “citizen science” presentation at a Personal Democracy Forum session last year and was immediately struck by the concept — an Arduino-based computer slipped into a water bottle and submerged in stream or lake to monitor conductivity, temperature and turbidity.

The idea stuck with me, and I did some digging into whether I could get one. No dice; it was still in development.

Months later, I was asked to teach a “sensor journalism” class this autumn at West Virginia University. It would explore the possibilities and pitfalls of using do-it-yourself, untested data-collection projects for journalism. Experimenting would be part of the story — learning from failure as well as from success.

Might we put Riffles in the Monongahela?

I reached out to Don, who said he was in the final stages of designing and building a deployable version of Riffle. He hoped to make a bunch of Riffle boards this summer, and warned that they’d need field testing to determine how well they worked in the wild — if at all.


Circuit Cobbling

Don designed Riffle’s brain using Eagle PCB Design Software, which is like PhotoShop for circuit boards. In the same way I’ve used snippets of open-source code to cobble together programming projects, he’s been using open-source circuits to cobble together Riffle — essentially placing an Arduino, a real-time clock and an mini-SD card together on one narrow board.

The files look like this. (And his Eagle files on the Riffle Github page).

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