The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #5 Hefin Rhys, Chess Watch Volunteer

The Heart of the Chilterns: Volunteers #5 Hefin Rhys, Chess Watch Volunteer

Hefin Rhys volunteers on the ChessWatch project which monitors the water quality of the River Chess.

He worked with Dr Kate Heppell to set up the water quality dashboard for the project, working with the data from four water quality sondes (sensors)  placed at different points along the River Chess. These sondes have been continuously monitoring water quality since 2019, with two more being added in 2022. Read more about ChessWatch and other research projects.

What’s been your role so far as a volunteer?

Most of my volunteering has been from behind a computer screen. The ChessWatch project has four water quality sensors in the river at locations of importance. Each of these sensors has taken several measurements of water quality (such as pH, temperature, how much dissolved oxygen there is) every 15 minutes for over three years. That’s a lot of data! My role as a volunteer is to take this data, remove errors from it, and add it to the project’s water quality dashboard, so that the public and expert geographers can view and interact with the data.

That’s my main role, but in an effort to do some “in person” volunteering, I recently got involved with the Mud Spotter activity, which aims to identify sources of fine sediment entering the river system. On one occasion, I got into a rowing boat on a fishing lake along the Chess, to help test a new portable dissolved oxygen sensor.

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What was your previous experience? What prompted you to get involved?

This is my first experience of getting involved with the River Chess. My husband and I moved to Chesham 5 years ago, and during the first lockdown I was stuck at home and looking for something local to get involved in. I saw Paul Jennings’ posts on the River Chess Association‘s twitter account, about these water quality sensors generating lots of data, and I sent him a message to ask if I could be of any use. He put me in touch with Kate, the Professor at QMUL who leads the project, and she kindly allowed me to help with the data cleanup, and the creation of the dashboard.

I’m 30, and currently work as a scientist for a pharmaceutical company. When I joined the project I was working at the Francis Crick Institute as a life scientist, but I have a background in data science and statistics too.

What have you enjoyed and learnt from volunteering?

My main enjoyment has been from feeling as though I’m contributing to the conservation of my local area and meeting other people that feel the same way. Kate was also kind enough to include me on academic publications on water quality in the Chess, which was a lovely way to be acknowledged.

I’ve learned a lot about the various factors that impact the health of a chalk stream river, and the challenges that the Chess faces in particular. The project has also helped me develop some technical skills I’m now using in my day job.

What have been the challenges?

My main challenge has been working with the vast amount of water quality data collected from the River, and presenting it in a way that is accessible to others, with modest computing power. As more and more data are collected from the river, this challenge will only increase.

What tips would you give to someone thinking of volunteering but not sure yet?

I would say that no matter your background or expertise, there will be something you can do to contribute. If you have some time you can commit and want the opportunity to learn more about the Chess, spend some time outdoors, and contribute to your local area, then I’d say it’s for you.

How might the volunteering influence your plans for the future?

Well volunteering is one way we can more connected with the local area. I wouldn’t say that helping with the ChessWatch project is what’s keeping me in Chesham, but it’s one of many roots that we’ve grown since we settled here.

Hefin also published a book in March 2020 on Machine Learning


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View the ChessWatch dashboard online

The ChessWatch project began in 2019 and is being led by Prof. Kate Heppell of Queen Mary University of London. Four water quality sondes placed at different points along the River Chess have been continuously monitoring water quality since 2019. Two further sondes will be added in 2022. The project has also conducted research into local awareness, perception and concerns for the River Chess. Real-time water quality data can be seen on the water quality dashboard.

Join our citizen science army!

Citizen science is the involvement of the public in scientific research – from community-driven surveys to global investigations. For the River Chess, citizen science is an incredibly vital way of getting data together and finding out information about current issues affecting the river and its catchment, including everything from water quality to water voles. All ages and abilities and backgrounds are welcome.

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