Teams Test Smartphone App Designed To Get People Interested In Milwaukee’s Water Resources

Jul 27, 2017

Last Saturday, two dozen people gathered under the sizzling summer sun to play Water Story MKE.

It is the brainchild of Michael Timm, who teamed up with Reflo, a nonprofit dedicated to water sustainability to create the app.

"You go around the city and different content pops up when you explore different sites, revealing green infrastructure, water history that’s relevant to a place, but giving you game credit to keep going and explore more,” Timm said.

The game's weekend debut concentrated on six sites.  The first was on 30th Street off North Avenue.

Most of the players had never set foot on the former brownfield, now 1.25-acre urban farm in which radishes flourish and greens erupt in profusions of color.

Underground, a cistern holds up to 40,000 gallons of rainwater. 

Reflo volunteer Barbara Richards biked her way to all of the game sites.

Barbara Richards is part of the nonprofit group called Reflo that is kicking off the interactive iPhone game AND recruited several dozen volunteers to construct the underground system here.

“We put together these things that look like milk crates – big black, two feet by three feet rectangular prism, over a 1,000 of them.  Stack them in a hole that had a big rubber liner,”  Richards said.

The cistern reduces the risk that neighbors’ basements will flood as they did back in 2010.

It is projects like this the game’s creator Michael Timm wants to share. But will people like the game app?  Timm was about to find out.

He instructs the teams to touch the big blue button on their phone screens.  A series of “dinging” sounds ringed through space.

Michael Timm helped teemmates Teresa Coronado and Janet Carwell to figure out the game.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

The “ding” means players have found a “hidden” water story – from scientific, hydrological stuff, to people stories – why they care about the space.

The game is place-based, like Pokemon Go.  But Timm is not out to create its frenzy, just excitement about water.

As teams set out in search of points, Teresa Coronado and Janet Carwell stand frozen - staring at their phone.

“I’m confused already.  We never played Pokemon Go.  What do we do,” they said.

Michael Timm swoops in to help, and Coronado and Carwell were off.

“We watched the first video to gain some points and it told us a lot about the farm and how they keep 90 percent of the water that hits the land, on the land – bioswales,” they said.

Carlos Smith teamed up with his sister Maya.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Seventeen year old Carlos Smith is giving the game a try. Turns out mom is a member of the Reflo team – she encouraged her son to team up with his younger sister.

“I felt like, I need to do something.  So was going to come out, hang out, play games and be more active,” Smith said.

Teams also had to complete a series of quizzes along the way - here there are near Lakefront Brewery.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Further stops included Lakefront Brewery where teams learned some of the less pristine history of the Milwaukee River, for example, the mouth of a twelve-foot tunnel opens onto the river upstream, what was it once used for? The answer: Water was piped up from Lake Michigan to flushed out the river that was polluted by human, horse and industrial waste.

Further upstream player Tom Weller was visibly moved.  He hopped in a canoe with his daughter to get points ON the river.  Weller says hadn’t paddled since he was a boy.

"I did a lot of canoeing as a kid when I was in scouting. My daughter did good out there.  She hasn’t canoed more than couple times in her life.  Nobody fell overboard, nobody got in a fight.  It was all positive,” Weller added, “I have to do it some more. 

The Weller family - Tom, Meghan and Sandy - won third place.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

The teams eventually congregated along Lake Michigan at the north end of Bradford Beach.

Player Carlos Smith watches as the three top scorers accept their swag. The seventeen year old is a quiet fellow, but says he was moved by the water app in an unexpected way.

“You know the brewery place, the one we were at,” Smith said.

The game explored the former Pabst Brewery – where lots of water would have been used, and today features loads of green infrastructure.  But it’s old architecture that struck Smith.  When he was little, Smith’s family lived just blocks from the brewery.  He hadn’t remember just where the house was, but the old brick buildings brought memories tumbling back.

“I always loved my old house when I was little because it was a big yard, and I just remember all of it now,” Smith said.

Julie and Chris Hults (left) called their team The Hurricanes. They placed first.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio

Water Story MKE is free and available to the public.

"If you have ideas for other locations or ideas for other water stories, we'd be happy to consider those as build it out into the future," game creator Michael Timm added, " It's meant to be a great public engagement tool, so you can imagine it would be a great daytrip for any one of these sites and an advertisement for others down the road."

One of the scavanger hunt's perks was getting out on the Milwaukee River to earn more points. Alex Mazur and Hannah Terrance (in canoe) said they had never heard of this spot, Turtle Park, before that day.
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio