Increasing Water Data Transparency in Northern Michigan

Working with Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council, The Commons deployed integrated data infrastructure to more effectively measure the health and status of inland lakes, rivers, and streams.

Project Takeaways


Inland lakes monitored and supported by our data management infrastructure


Streams monitored and supported by our data management infrastructure


Interactive and live updating dashboards published for ToTM monitoring programs.


Samples collected detailing the health of and status of Michigan's inland lakes and streams

“By fully modernizing the highly accurate, technically-sound water quality data collected by the Watershed Council since 1986, The Commons has allowed for feasible viewing and analysis of large datasets, and, more importantly, a greater degree of public accessibility to scientific data for Northern Michigan’s vital water resources. Much of the public is invested in the protection of the state’s lakes, streams, and groundwater, and creating an interpretable database will help both citizens and Watershed Council staff alike to understand the health of their freshwaters and predict future trends as they relate to nutrients, water clarity, and macroinvertebrate populations.”

Marcella Domka
Water Resources Manager, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council

Project Deployment Strategy

Working in partnership with The Downstream Project and Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council (ToTM), The Commons created a comprehensive data management and visualization system for collection, management and visualization of water quality samples for ToTM's Volunteer Lake Monitoring, Comprehensive Water Quality Monitoring, and Voluntary Stream Monitoring Programs. Through integration and a SAAS approach, ToTM's water data are now managed in a centralized database with connected interactive dashboards allowing community members to better follow and understand water health in their area.

AirTable | Data Management

Working with the Downstream Project and Tip of the Mitt staff, The Commons deployed an program-specific AirTable Bases to facilitate easy collection and management of water quality monitoring sites, readings, and statistics.

Pipedream | Integration

Leveraging Pipedream, our team deployed a series of Workflows that watch for event changes in AirTable and automatically sync data to ArcGIS Online as records are added, updated, or deleted.

ArcGIS Online | Mapping & Analytics

Using ArcGIS Online, our team deployed program-specific, live updating dashboards depicting analytics for water quality monitoring sites, readings, and and benthic health indices.

WordPress | Website Integration

Partnering with Downstream Project, our team leveraged dynamic embeds to generate lake and stream specific dashboard views for quick and easy reference.

Training and Support

Throughout the lifecycle of the project, our team grew proficiency amongst Tip of the Mitt staff to full fully operate, maintain, and extend the deployed system with limited developer intervention.


Project and Environmental Policy Intersection

When someone mentions northern Michigan, images of bucolic summer days kayaking and swimming on Lake Michigan start running through one's mind. Water is a foundational part of life for residents of the region and one of the primary reasons people come from around the world to visit. Regrettably, the attraction of this region has led to a surge in human development and expansion, which directly jeopardizes the very waters that span across the area. From erosion to stormwater runoff to even oil and gas pressures, waters in northern Michigan face threats of pollution and ecosystem degradation from numerous sources. 

To combat the environmental threats posed by these dangers, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has committed itself to being one of the few organizations exclusively dedicated to preserving clean water in the northern peninsula. Through their focus on protecting groundwater, lakes, and streams they’ve emerged as a trusted community voice for water-related matters, thanks to their dedicated monitoring and advocacy efforts. One of the easiest ways to protect these waters while engaging the community is through water quality monitoring programs. These programs allow volunteers to get out on the water and collect samples while also ensuring that the data is of the highest quality to share with local decision-makers. Through this project, Tip of the Mitt was able to modernize its water quality programs by implementing contemporary FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) data standards for its data infrastructure and visualizations, opening its water data and increasing its impact across both the region and state.  


Project Planning

With water quality data dating back to 1997, TOTM has accumulated a robust 27-year dataset for waters surrounding northern Michigan. In that time TOTM explored various methods to better manage and visualize its data, with no solution seeming like the correct answer. Today, with so much ground-breaking technology widely accessible, concerned community members expect the use of this technology to access environmental data. People want to be able to look up water quality from a nearby river or lake as easily as they look up the local weather. Acknowledging this trend, TOTM saw this as the perfect opportunity to partner with The Commons. Through our Digital Services program, we modernized both how they manage and visualize their data.

TOTM has three distinct water quality programs - Comprehensive Chemical Monitoring, Volunteer Lake Monitoring, and Volunteer Stream Monitoring. Each evaluates different water quality parameters from lakes and streams in northern Michigan. The end product needed to work for all three programs. Project requirements were as follows:: 

  1. These datasets are managed in a siloed manner, and a modernized approach to data infrastructure and management was needed.
  2. TOTM wanted to be able to display each program’s data via its own independent data dashboard which could be seamlessly embedded on their new website.
  3. Data needed to flow in near real-time from each program’s centralized database to their dashboard once the data was recorded in the field.

Working with TOTM staff and members of the Downstream Project, The Commons developed a contemporary data infrastructure for all TOTM water data using software-as-a-solution (SaaS) platforms to manage and visualize the data. Water data (legacy and new data) from each program was stored and managed in Airtable using a pre-built data model. These datasets were then connected to ArcGIS Online using application programming interfaces (APIs) via Pipedream. This allowed the data to be managed and manipulated in Airtable while ensuring real-time updating of ArcGIS visualizations once new data was added. Finally, The Downstream Project handled front-end web integration with Tip of the Mitt’s organizational website to ensure web mapping analytics adhered to brand standards and were available through the various inland lake and stream profile pages. This solution integrated seamlessly with the ArcGIS maps developed by The Commons, dynamically linking over 60 lakes and streams with data from three distinct monitoring programs.



The major milestones in this project can be broken down into two distinct tasks: (a) upgrade and modernize TOTM’s water data infrastructure to make it easier to manage data while still abiding by FAIR data standards and; (b) create three separate, publicly accessible dashboards for each respective water quality program (Comprehensive Chemical Water Quality Monitoring, Volunteer Stream Monitoring, and Volunteer Lake Monitoring) and display them on TOTM’s website. 

To tackle the first milestone, the data management platform Airtable was selected as the central data management tool for all three of TOTM’s water programs. Airtable is a cloud-based data management platform that allows users to configure, input, store, and organize large datasets in user-friendly ways. Additionally, Airtable allows for the easy integration of data with other third-party platforms, allowing data to pass from Airtable to ArcGIS Online for visualization. Within Airtable The Commons worked with TOTM staff to create a standard data model for all three programs with separate databases built for each one. While these databases are separate, Airtable allows TOTM staff to easily manage and manipulate data within each database and between datasets if need be. With easy-to-use, lightweight extensions TOTM staff can also create data summaries, charts, and convenient visualizations via Airtable Interfaces to make data management and analysis quicker and more efficient for staff. Finally, with a fully documented API Airtable allows each of these separate databases to be easily linked with geospatial visualization platforms like ArcGIS Online.

For the second milestone in this project, we needed data to flow from Airtable to ArcGIS Online so that the data visualizations update in real-time. Thanks to the third-party connection service Pipedream, we were able to easily link each Airtable database with a corresponding ArcGIS Online Feature Service in TOTM’s ESRI account. In this workflow, Pipedream serves as the traffic controller, ensuring that the data in Airtable are structured and flow appropriately based on parameters set by The Commons team. 

The final step was to build individual data dashboards in ArcGIS Online using the Dashboards function. The Commons team created three interactive dashboards tailored to the datasets and the information they needed to convey. These dashboards are the CWQM Dashboard, the VLM Dashboard, and the VSM Dashboard. Finally, The Downstream Project worked to incorporate each dashboard into TOTM webpages, allowing viewers to explore water data from every stream and lake that TOTM monitors in one location.

Diagram of the data flow, software utilized, and role of each system in supporting TOTM


Results and Outcomes

Rivers and lakes shape the landscape of northern Michigan, integrating water into the daily lives of local residents. Over the years, the Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council has become the leading authority on freshwater conservation and restoration in northern Michigan. By engaging community members in both monitoring and understanding of water data, they have cultivated a dedicated group of water stewards working collectively to protect the waters of the region. Until recently, TOTM lacked a modern data management system that could organize and visualize water data in a way that was both accesible and informative for the community. Fortunately, through partnerships with The Commons and the Downstream Project, TOTM has now implemented a state-of-the-art water data management system built on a SaaS platform.  This new system enhances the agility of TOTM’s water resources staff in data collection and organization, and it builds sustainability for each water quality program. Coupled with data dashboards tailored for each program, this system will support TOTM’s ongoing efforts in clean water stewardship,  boosting public awareness and education about watershed health and restoration for years to come. 

Increased transparency and public access to water quality data via three interactive data dashboards

Interactions with local waterbodies is a daily occurrence for residents and visitors to the northern tip of Michigan. From lakes to rivers and streams, waterways are ingrained in the community, offering recreation and relaxation for thousands during the warmer months. In modern times, with access to data so readily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, water data has often lagged due to data comparability issues and a lack of technical literacy for community-based data generators. This unfortunate paradigm means that water data can oftentimes be unavailable to the public who needs it to make informed decisions about recreation and water contact.

With this project, TOTM wanted to break down the access barriers for community-focused water data. By working with  The Commons and partnering with the Downstream Project on frontend website design, TOTM now has three comprehensive data dashboards, each providing an interactive, and most importantly public, experience for northern Michigan community members and visitors. With these dashboards providing near real-time water data on over 60 rivers and lakes in the area the public at large now has quick access to information on water temperatures, turbidity, and overall stream health, to name a few. These data can be filtered by lake or stream and offer unparalleled access to local water quality never before available for the region. 

TOTM Comprehensive Chemical Water Quality Dashboard.

TOTM Volunteer Lake Monitoring Dashboard

TOTM Volunteer Stream Monitoring Dashboard

Adoption of user-friendly, modernized data infrastructure that adheres to FAIR data principals 

One of the most common hurdles faced by community-focused water quality programs the world over is a deficiency in modernized data management systems. Understandably, when funding is inconsistent and piecemeal, priorities are focused on the implementation of monitoring, often leaving data management systems as an afterthought. Unfortunately, without proper, contemporary data infrastructure that conforms to FAIR data principles, community-based data are often underutilized by both regulators and the public. Understanding that the details in their data systems should match the details in their monitoring programs, Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council reached out to The Commons to assist with an overhaul of their water data infrastructure. 

Knowing that the solution had to be custom-tailored for the organization and the use case, we at The Commons were able to plan out a new data management system that would decrease the siloing of TOTM water data and allow them to more readily visualize all water data together. The final product needed to utilize easy-to-access cloud-based SaaS platforms with a low barrier to entry in order to ensure that TOTM staff could quickly and efficiently learn to work with the new workflow with minimal training time. The final product produced is an approachable, easy-to-adopt data management workflow that conforms to FAIR data principles and vastly increases the usability and impact of water data collected by Tip of the Mitt Watershed Council and their volunteers.

Support the Digital Services Program