Citizens have been collecting water samples and other potentially useful information about local streams for decades; but finding a way to make those observations available to others has often been a problem.

Even when groups release environmental report cards about the health of local waterways, the more detailed information behind those reports often is hard for others to find.

Now, a new web-based platform, ChesapeakeCommons.org, allows groups to easily make site-specific monitoring information publicly available.

It also provides groups with powerful online tools that allow people to create informative maps and charts that can help them better present and explain their own data to the public and the media. Its tools include an app that makes it easy to enter information directly from the field.

The web-based platform, which was launched this spring, has already been used by groups as large as the Choose Clean Water Coalition, which needed to map the locations of its 230 member organizations, to The Mountain Institute in West Virginia, which uses students and teachers to gather water quality data about headwater streams that is then used both in the classroom and by state agencies.

"It makes it really easy for these groups to pull data into a common place where it can be hosted," said John Dawes, Chesapeake Commons administrator. "We want to make it as easy as possible to present this, and have conversation and dialogue around it."

Indeed, the site provides opportunities for users to exchange information about how they use data, and how it can inform policy makers and the public.

Not all of the information has the level of quality that can be used by agencies in decision making. But the site operates on the principal that some information is better than no information. So while a variety of data can be added, the site also includes information about how the data was collected and what its limitations might be. Users can also submit questions and comment on data sets.

"By having that organization's name on it and by having the point of contact, they are responsible for upkeep and ensuring that it is good quality information," Dawes said.

The site also provides tools to help groups make complex data more understandable to the public. For instance, StreamWatch, an organization that monitors water quality in the Rivanna River basin in Virginia, uses Chesapeake Common tools to create interactive maps that help people understand factors, such as land use, that impact local water quality.

Dawes hopes groups from around the Bay watershed will continue to add information, which will provide a better view not only of water quality, but how it affects aquatic life and how it is affected by human activities.

"One goal of Chesapeake Commons is to get data out of spreadsheets and into a common place for dialogue and decision-making." Dawes said.

Online guides at www.chesapeakecommons.org help organizations get started, but Dawes also provides assistance to organizations.

ChesapeakeCommons.org is a project of the Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, a partnership of Bay-related grantmakers, and The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, a DC-based nonprofit that promotes the synthesis of research and information to help improve public policy decision-making.