By: Benjamin Silver, Science and Technology Intern

Imagine suspecting that your drinking water is unsafe, but lacking the tools to verify your assumption. If the Yankton Sioux Tribe of South Dakota wants to obtain useful data about their drinking water, they must navigate to an online Water Quality Portal with multiple spreadsheets. Some of these datasets take hours to download and contain millions of samples with confusing, bureaucratic jargon. You might fall asleep on your keyboard before reaching any conclusions about your water…

This case study is a prime example of how disadvantaged communities face challenges in learning about the chemicals in their environment. The disproportionate impact of toxic chemical exposure on low-income, minority Americans is compounded by restricted access to the knowledge to combat the injustice. These Americans inevitably struggle to find useful information, whether from a lack of knowledge about existing water quality data or the digital divide that exists in impoverished communities. Even with comprehensive reports at their disposal, most Americans don’t have the scientific knowledge necessary to interpret the data.

Understanding the chemical composition of one’s surrounding environment is a human rights issue. The CDC estimates that over 60 million Americans drink water with chemicals associated with acute or chronic health conditions. While the EPA has never formally investigated chemically-associated health outcomes on the Yankton Reservation, various hazardous waste dumps along the reservation leach into the Missouri River. Even if the EPA did attest to water safety, government promises garner skepticism amongst a culture that has been consistently deceived by white people.

The importance of access to and control over data on tribal land ignited the Sacred Water Bundle Project. CHEJ and the Braveheart Society, a Sioux non-profit dedicated to preserving traditional cultural practices have collaborated to harness data in the water quality portal to construct an interactive map of the land along the Missouri River, the primary water source of the Yankton tribe. Viewers will be able to click on various sampling locations in the region and learn about various toxins at each location, including pesticides, metals, and inorganic compounds. 

To create the map, we used ArcGIS (an online mapping software) to pull only water quality data in the region of interest and generate coordinate points for each water sample. We then wrote a code that identified desired toxins in each dataset to group them by chemical type. We will use these groups to create the files for the interactive map.

Harnessing innovative data visualization methods will allow marginalized communities to familiarize themselves with their environment. Regardless of water safety, exposure to accessible, immersive data will equip the Sioux to grapple with long-term sustainability questions facing the tribe: What pollution sources threaten future water quality? Can the water support culturally-valuable plants and wildlife for generations to come? Empowering the Sioux with useful tools will better prepare them to fight for environmental justice and be stewards of their land. 

Water quality data doesn’t have to be a jumble of mundane parameters and values. Effective data presentation can allow everyday Americans to become well-versed scientists and leaders in their communities.

Photo Credit: South Dakota State University