Tech-Savvy Kids, the Drought and One Smart App

Corben Beaty (far left), Noah Arsitio, Evan Murai, Daniel Shin and Jeffrey Forbes make up the Fab Five.  (Alice Daniel/KQED)

Five kids from Fresno who love robotics, computers and contests were in search of an idea: They wanted to enter the national First Lego League competition. To do so, the group of sixth-graders needed to come up with an innovative research project that improves the way people learn.

So they turned to the crisis most affecting the Central Valley: the drought. They began their quest at a Fresno water forum, where they learned that the city actually tracks customers’ daily water usage, even though customers see that only once a month on their bill.

That’s when the lightbulb went on.

“And we’re like, well, we can use that data and create an app from it that shows the users actually how much they’re using, so it’s not just sitting in the City of Fresno database,” says team captain Jeffrey Forbes.

They also learned about the city's 20-gallon challenge to its residents: Reduce water use by 20 gallons a day.

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“Basically, all our lakes are going dry, so we wanted to help that cause by making an app so people can actually save water and preserve water,” says Evan Murai. His father, Kevin Murai, coached the team.

The kids talked to water and technology experts. They went to the city’s water division and interviewed Michael Treas, a systems administrator. Treas figured they were just doing a typical classroom project and would have a few questions.

“Little did I know they actually had other intentions,” he says. “They actually wanted this idea to come to fruition.”

He was so impressed he met with them on several occasions to explain how the city's computers access data from water meters.

“I think the boys had a really good idea, and the way they presented themselves told me that they put a lot of thought into it,” says Treas. “I’m really happy that kids that young can come up with an idea that solves real-world problems.”

The kids created charts to show how information is transmitted from individual water meters to city computers. And they presented their design for an app that tracks a consumer’s daily household water use to City Hall.

In fact, says Evan Murai, they shared their idea with everyone, including their peers at Riverview Elementary.

“We presented to our fifth- and fourth-grade classes, and one of the kids, Jack Wade, he’s like, ‘Are you guys gonna go on "Shark Tank?' " Murai says, referring to the popular reality TV show on which entrepreneurs pitch ideas to venture capitalists.

The kids take a root beer float break with their coach Kevin Murai.
The kids take a root beer float break with their coach, Kevin Murai. (Alice Daniel/KQED)

There are a couple similar apps on the market, but the fifth-graders say this one is kid-friendly. It’s like a game. If you save water, you get a prize -- virtual golden coins.

“We wanted to make this app kid-friendly, so we added coins,” Noah Arsitio says. “For every gallon you save for the 20-gallon challenge, you earn one coin, until you meet the 20-gallon challenge. After that you earn 10 coins.”

Teammate Corben Beaty says they did research on how people take in information.

“The best ways to get someone to learn something is humor, catchy songs, written facts and visuals,” he says.

Teammate Daniel Shin designed the app’s project display. He says Coach Murai taught him how to use Microsoft Publisher.

The app uses lots of visuals and humor -- links to funny water-saving videos like the one where a man in a toilet costume gets tackled on a football field. The message: Don’t let your toilet run.

A big reward for all the hard work!
A big reward for all the hard work! (Alice Daniel/KQED)

“You’ve got cute kids, you’ve got the biggest problem facing the valley, if not the world, and you’ve got exciting technology,” says Jake Soberal, CEO of a local tech company, Bitwise Industries.

“They pushed water responsibility down to the individual level,” says Soberal. “If we’re going to talk about water and municipal water use, at some point that means taking a shower or brushing your teeth.”

He says it will cost about $100,000 to develop and market the app, which ideally will be free to users. Fresno is putting up $5,000. Other businesses are investing. Bitwise will work with the kids this summer to develop the app.

“They came up with a pragmatic realistic solution and then outlined how they were going to execute,” Soberal says. “And they put together a requirements document that resembled something that, you know, I would expect a very sophisticated client to turn over.”

As for how long it took to design the app, well, there's some debate. “Nine months?” someone says. “One hundred and forty-four hours?”

“Way more,” says Coach Murai. “You guys aren’t counting all the hours we spent doing research.”

And all the hours they spent traveling to St. Louis. Yes, they made it to the First Lego League competition.  They didn’t win, but they had a fabulous time. And what did they like best? The swag shop! Lots of free stuff.