River Runner: the viral app that lets you track the path of a raindrop anywhere in the world

Water Resources

A droplet of rain from my local river, The Wandle, makes an amazing 92km journey via the river Thames to the North Sea. On another continent, a water droplet plopping into a section of The Nile that runs through Sudan travels 42km through two unidentified rivers to land in an unnamed Inland Water Feature.

This is River Runner a viral tool created by a team of US researchers and developers, that at its height had a staggering 500 users per minute, all of whom are no doubt keen to understand the interconnected nature of water bodies around the globe.

Created using existing data sets such the MERIT digital elevation model (DEM), region-by region typography data that helps to develop hydrography maps, and an open-source data set called Natural Earth, which combines river names with cartography, River Runner Global has a number of potential applications David Blodgett, a hydroinformatics specialist at the United States Geological Survey Integrated Modeling and Prediction Division’s Geo-Intelligence Branch and one of the members of the above team, told CIWEM.

“There are still very few examples worldwide of cross-border, hydrogrophy,” Blodgett revealed. “The inspiration for River Runner, initially a US-only app, came after work on Alaska-based project also using MERIT hydrogrophy. As we needed to incorporate data for Canada, which Alaska stretches into, a number of people started to contemplate how far we could push its borders, asking: ‘why can’t I do this for Brazil?’, ‘why can’t I do this for China?’ and so on. And it’s at this point that the idea for River Runner Global, launched at the start of 2022, was born.”

Try the tool just once and you’ll quickly find yourself addicted to sweeping over landscapes bordering everywhere from India’s Bay of Bengal to The Caspian Sea. Explaining why River Runner Global is so compelling, Blodgett continues.

“I’m a cyclist, I like to experience the world at landscape scale and I think the world at that scale is interesting. Having a visual experience of where water goes, is pretty meaningful and has definitely caught people’s eye.”

Blodgett is also the chair of a standard working group for river/hydrologic features and co-chair of a working group for hydro science in general at the Open Geospatial Consortium – a worldwide community committed to improving access to geospatial, or location information.

Through these groups he has come to understand that there are “big gaps in our information systems globally, in terms of software” which makes it hard to track what we know about lakes, rivers and other water bodies.

One of the potential applications of the tool, Blodgett suggests, although the creators didn’t have this in mind when developing the app initially, could be to use River Runner Global as the basis for a river identification scheme that would allow a more “consistent and persistent interaction of these waterways”.

Blodgett also reveals that as one of the long-term goals for the app is to build a data set for hydro features that could, one day, go on to create a universal lexicon used by water and environment professionals around the globe.

He is one of the co-authors of a paper which discusses why a common, precise language for hydro features is so important. The report says:

‘Nearly 400 years later, the familiar and intuitive properties of these landscape mechanics have resulted in a general vagueness about how hydrologic features are described, referenced, and understood.’

While the app is currently static, there are a few ways the public can get involved with shaping it. One such way is by suggesting a name for as yet unnamed stretches of water or correcting a misnamed river.

“As of January 24th, we had received over 3,500 name suggestions, which we will then sort, feed back into the database and potentially include.”

Why not try River Runner Global for yourself here?

Words: Miriam Habtesellasie

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