The Neptune Project

The Neptune Project leverages big data to identify communities that have the greatest risk for lead contamination and provides them testing.

Photo of Ananya Sridhar
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Date You Started Your Project Started


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

Lead poisoning is a public health issue which has extremely detrimental consequences to youth. Lead-contaminated water is a pressing issue beyond Flint—The CDC estimates that lead poisoning impacts children in at least 4 million American households. There is a direct correlation between lead poisoning and brain development and consequentially their economic wellbeing. Fighting lead poisoning leads to a healthy and prosperous future generation.

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

California is the only state where blood lead level (BLL) data, an indication of lead level in water) is available statewide by zip code. Testing data is not available in all states, subjecting unsuspecting communities to continued lead exposure. All states collect census data which helps identify factors that can pinpoint communities at risk for contamination. The Neptune Project uses a machine learning predictive algorithm to identify characteristics of communities with high probability of contamination by using California data for training and testing. After two summers and an academic year, my current refined model has a predictive accuracy of 67.14%. This model enables cost effective testing of water in targeted communities with high probability. The second part of the project is a litmus paper that changes color when lead is present in water. This is a more accessible test method than lab tests that are unaffordable and cumbersome. Through several iterations of chemicals, papers, processing techniques I got the sensitivity from 1000 ppm to 100 ppb, a huge jump towards EPA'S 15 ppb threshold. This method can be used at scale to comprehensively test more buildings.

3. Using STEM as a force of good: Please specify how are you using STEM to solve for an environmental challenge you are passionate about.

With the advancements that have occured in data science and availability of digital data, we now have a very powerful toolkit that can be used to solve big societal problems in a pinpointed manner as opposed to unaffordable, blind and brute force comprehensive tests. The Neptune Project uses this approach to tackle lead poisoning in water. It’s predictive model is built using machine learning, a subset of artificial intelligence. I experimented with and evaluated many tools with my teaching data to down select the tool that was best for my application. The current model uses gradient-boosted regression trees to make predictions. The litmus testing method uses a chemical called sodium rhodizonate which bonds with aqueous lead ions to create a compound that turns purple. Traditionally, this method of lead detection is used in forensic science to detect residue of lead bullets, but no one has applied it to water testing. In the attachments section of the application I’ve uploaded a full scientific paper which details the methods and results of the Neptune Project and all the science involved.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

I was in middle school when the Flint Water Crisis happened. I was immediately drawn to the story and learnt how lead poisoning devastates the health of young children. As a young person, I wanted to make a difference for younger children who are less fortunate than me. I was taking chemistry during my 7th grade year, and one day in class we learned about litmus papers that change color based on a criteria such as pH. I came up with an idea of creating a litmus paper that changes color when it comes in contact with lead contaminated water. I worked with my chemistry teacher and began doing research and staying after school on Fridays and many weekends in the science lab to work on creating a prototype. In addition, a few years later, I read about machine learning and thought it would be a great way to tackle the issue of lead contamination by selectively identifying high risk areas.

5. Video (Keep it simple, a video made on a hand-held phone is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

I’ve spent 18 months working as an intern at One Concern, a startup that uses machine learning to create models and effectively respond to natural disasters. With mentorship from their founder and data science experts, I’ve refined my model. I’ve continued working with my middle school chemistry teacher to develop litmus test kits. I’m now introducing the Neptune Project to youth communities to create a network of students who can serve as ambassadors by raising awareness and distributing kits.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Current lead testing methods are inaccessible and unaffordable for many, especially impoverished communities which are particularly at risk for lead contamination. It’s impractical to lab test the water in every school and building structure in the country. By pinpointing the areas which are most at risk for lead poisoning and offering an affordable testing technique that can be distributed in these communities, the Neptune Project’s solution will reach more of America’s at-risk population and give them solutions quicker as opposed to the children being affected due to lack of testing.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made?

The Neptune Project’s predictive model is built off of California data which serves as the model’s pilot, so I don’t require a second pilot before I scale out my project. So, in the last three months, we have identified two target areas for applying the model—neighboring states Arizona and Nevada. We have identified hotspots in the areas and plan to contact schools in those areas to test them once the country reopens. We also received funding from the Westly Foundation recently for prroviding the schools with test kits. . In the meantime, I am presenting the Neptune Project to various clubs and youth groups, working to grow a volunteer network that can carry out tests and raise awareness in communities. Once I am able to conduct testing in these other communities, the data collected can be input back into the machine learning model and it will self-improve, increasing model accuracy.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

My goal is to use the Neptune Project website and social media to create awareness and generate a nationwide network of high school volunteers who will be trained to collect samples from schools in high risk areas. For the follow-on phase, I am attempting to create partnerships with labs in the country to test water samples pro bono for social good. Once schools are tested, local volunteers will create community groups that will solicit help from real estate developers, general contractors and builders, local hardware stores, national hardware store chains, local plumber unions and concerned parents to help eradicate the sources of lead plumbing in the schools. I will also try to use those community groups to expand testing.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

One takeaway from my work on Project Neptune is that my generation, which has grown up in a digital age, has opportunities to leverage technology and data for social good. This is a message I have been working to spread to my peers and other students. I have created a workshop and presented it to student led science and social justice clubs. So far, I’ve been able to see a lot of enthusiasm from the students I speak to, and I look forward to continuing my own work and helping others.

11. Please share ideas of how you can partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

Working on The Neptune Project has made me realize using data science with physical world problems is an extremely effective strategy. I would really like to partner with other changemakers working on big physical issues to apply data science methods to return better and more efficient outcomes.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

“The World Health Organization conducted a cost-benefit analysis in the US and found that for every US$ 1 spent to reduce lead hazards, there is a benefit of US$ 17-220. This cost benefit ratio is better than that for vaccines, which have long been described as the single most cost-beneficial medical or public health intervention.” This excerpt from a WHO report emphasizes how investing in lead poisoning is investing in a healthier and more productive society.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Family support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Search engine
  • Recommended by others

Evaluation results

8 evaluations so far

1. Overall evaluation

Yes, absolutely! - 57.1%

Probably - 42.9%

Maybe - 0%

Probably not - 0%

No - 0%

2. CONNECTION to Environmental Sustainability

5 - Absolutely! It is totally clear that the solution is contributing directly to environmental sustainability and/or addressing climate change - 71.4%

4 — Yes, it establishes a connection to environment/ climate change but could be stronger - 28.6%

3 — Somewhat, the entry speaks to this environmental sustainability, but the direct impact is not well established - 0%

2 — Not really, the connection to environment/ climate is very weak - 0%

1 — No. The entry does not have a reference the solution’s impact on environment and/or climate change - 0%

No Answer or No Connection - 0%

3. Is this entry CREATIVE?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 57.1%

4 - Yes, I think so - 28.6%

3 - Maybe - 14.3%

2 - Probably not. - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

4. Does this entry demonstrate a COMMITMENT to changemaking?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 100%

4 - Yes, I think so - 60%

3 - Maybe - 20%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

5. Does this entry value CHANGEMAKING through collaboration with other stakeholders in its approach?

5 - Yes, absolutely! - 62.5%

4 - Yes, I think so - 37.5%

3 - Maybe - 0%

2 - Probably not - 0%

1 - No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

6. Is this entry VIABLE financially and operationally?

5 -Yes, absolutely! - 28.6%

4- Yes, I think so - 42.9%

3- Maybe - 28.6%

2- Probably not - 0%

1- No - 0%

No Answer - 0%

7. FEEDBACK: What are the strengths of this project?

CONNECTION: You have a great understanding and personal connection to the problem - 66.7%

CREATIVITY: You have researched existing solutions, and have developed unique, thoughtful new solutions to aid environmental sustainability/combat climate change - 100%

COMMITMENT: You have a thoughtful plan for growing your business, and your founding team has a strong combination of leadership and knowledge-based skills - 50%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: You value thinking around how to activate other changemakers and empower them to care about your cause. You also have a clearly defined plan on how to collaborate across multiple stakeholders - 33.3%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: You use specific numbers and evidence to describe what your project has achieved so far (or plan to achieve in the future) and you have a plan for measuring impact - 66.7%

VIABLITY: You have given a great deal of thought to not just the idea itself but how to make it work from a financial perspective in the present and future - 66.7%

Other option - 33.3%

8. FEEDBACK: What are some areas for improvement for this project?

CONNECTION: Why you care about the environment/ climate was unclear – It would be great to elaborate on what this solution means to you, personally and how it affects you and/or your community. - 0%

CREATIVITY: Be more specific in your description of the research you have done into the past solutions to this problem and focus on how your solution is unique and innovative - 0%

COMMITMENT: Your plan for growing the organization can benefit from more specifics. How can you round out the various skills of your current leadership team to make the project a long-term success? - 25%

CHANGEMAKER QUALITY: Try to provide more insights into how you are activating changemakers and empowering them to innovate through your product or programming. How will they care about environment/climate if they currently do not? Think about how to create value for all stakeholders, not just immediate beneficiaries - 25%

IMPACT MEASUREMENT: Provide specific instances of your social impact and how you plan to measure impact – it may be helpful to describe the beneficiaries, products and programming, and provide evidence of (or plan for) how to measure impact - 0%

VIABILITY: Make sure you have provided descriptive information about your financial sustainability plan. Where do the funds come from now and do you have a concrete plan for future sustainability? - 50%

Nothing – I thought everything was great! - 100%

Other option - 0%


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