It might seem impossible to get lost in the modern world with its ubiquity of digital maps, but there is more than one way to be lost. Truly knowing where you are goes beyond pinpointing your position. It means knowing where your water comes from and where it goes, where your electricity is generated and where your rubbish ends up. It means being aware of what plants and animals live nearby and what kind of soil lies beneath your feet.
For example, an undergraduate at a rainy Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana, can use his or her smartphone to instantly calculate a route to the nearest Starbucks coffee shop. But chances are that he or she remains ignorant of how the rain flows through the city on its way to the White River, the Mississippi and, finally, the Gulf of Mexico.
Enter Raindrop, a phone application that combines sewer and watercourse maps with the software that makes getting a caffeine fix so easy. Tap the map and watch the path of a single raindrop flow from your location through streams, culverts and pipes into the river. The app, due to launch next month, was funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and put together by a team led by ecologist Timothy Carter at Butler. It is currently limited to Indianapolis, but similar efforts could be designed for other cities.
A better appreciation of watercourses and other hidden networks can only strengthen human connections to ecosystems, biogeochemical cycles and resource flows, and will arguably make people more likely to support science and environmental causes. Making available the data that science and society produce in these innovative ways can help people to find themselves — even if they had no idea that they were lost.