There’s a certain irony to testing if local waters are safe to swim in. It can take 24 hours for a lab to collect and analyze bacteria levels inside rivers and lakes. By the time the public learns they shouldn’t be swimming somewhere, they probably already have . . . and hopefully showered since.

[Photo: Iwan Baan/courtesy PlayLab]

But a new project called + Pool Light, designed by Playlab and Family New York, turns water quality readings into a simple sculpture that glows safe or unsafe in real time. Currently installed at NYC’s Harbor until January 3, it’s a floating 50-feet-by-50-feet cross of LED lights that can be seen from miles around. If the lights glow teal, everything is okay. If they glow pink, pathogens are likely exceeding safe levels. I say “likely” because, technically, this conclusion is really just an educated guess. Water quality measurements are collected by nearby sensors, which are fed into a predictive algorithm, developed by Columbia University’s Lahmont Doherty Earth Observatory.

Yes, + Pool Light might tell you that the water is gross and not fit for splashing. But for the most part, + Pool Light is meant to be a beacon of hope. “The design recognizes the ‘+’ sign as a symbol of positivity, indicating the impactful steps we have taken to improve water quality since the Clean Water Act of 1972,” explains Jeffrey Franklin, cofounder of + Pool and partner at Playlab.

[Photo: Iwan Baan/courtesy PlayLab]

Indeed, while the Hudson River was polluted with industrial waste and sewage in the 1960s, these protections have transformed it into a part of our recreational environment again, welcoming swimmers and fishermen. This is a success story, and + Pool Light celebrates it.

Ironically, the hardest part of the project wasn’t designing or building the device, it was getting the permitting and other city logistics to install it. And that same bureaucracy is exactly what’s standing in the way of the greater + Pool project, which imagines a giant swimming pool installed in the bay for New Yorkers to enjoy. The project has been in the works for six years now.

In any case, whether + Pool comes to fruition or not, the team would still like to take the ideas developed to realize + Pool Light to more bodies of water. “Our hope is to engage spectators visually with what is happening in the water around them,” says Franklin.

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