Ontario Water News

AquaHacking Challenge Promotes Stewardship and Revitalization for Lake Erie

In recent years, the “hackathon” approach to solving water challenges has grown in popularity due to its critical emphasis on real-world preparedness and team cooperation.

WaterTAP’s own President and CEO, Dr. Peter Gallant, is an avid proponent of this style of collaboration. “Ensuring the integrity of water and its wide accessibility is something everybody can agree on. Hackathons give people with diverse professional backgrounds the chance to come together to work on common challenges,” he says.

Now in its third year, the Montreal-based de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation has been delighted by the contributions that AquaHacking has made for water efforts in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin – and WaterTAP is pleased to join the movement as a new partner.

“Hackathons offer mentorship, foster team skill building, and elevate design ideas into business pitches. They hit the right balance between extracurricular enjoyment and real-life practicality,” Gallant says. “We’re thrilled to partner with the foundation on this initiative, and we encourage Ontario’s water technology sector experts to form teams and participate in the challenge.”

Claude Perras, the foundation’s Executive Director, is especially emphatic about the inclusiveness of the effort in tackling water issues. “AquaHacking is a multi-generational, multi-sector, and multi-stakeholder movement,” he says.

Broadly speaking, the foundation aims to drive environmental and economic stewardship for the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin, as well as behavioural changes in how these waters are valued.

“These bodies of water are in dire need of protection, containing approximately 21% of the world’s fresh water, serving as the primary drinking water source for every one of three Canadians,” Perras says. “What many North Americans do not often realize is that this very important region is under threat by a variety of environmental and industrial pressures. Through the AquaHacking movement, we want to help bring about the knowledge and awareness that will compel people to treat water as a precious and irreplaceable resource.”

How it works

Each year the foundation prioritizes a specific body of water. The Ottawa River was the inaugural focus in 2015, followed by the St. Lawrence River in 2016. Using the Waterloo region as its base camp and in partnership with the University of Waterloo’s Water Institute, this year’s event focuses on Lake Erie. The foundation is highlighting such issues as invasive species affecting native fish, plants, and wildlife, as well as concerns about harmful algal blooms and plastic debris.

In addition to targeting efforts to bring awareness to a vital water resource, the foundation is offering numerous prizes: up to $75,000 to be shared among the top teams, as well as accelerator and incubator placements, consultation and mentorship, media coverage, and other rewards.

Not your traditional hackathon

“Whereas a standard hackathon is a weekend event, our AquaHacking challenge extends for several weeks because we are looking for long-term, environmentally sustainable, advanced technological solutions,” Perras says. “We will give students, hackers, engineers, and other creative minds adequate time and mentorship to develop functional and marketable innovations to help solve Lake Erie’s water issues.”

As a companion to the challenge, the foundation will also co-host a summit, Elsevier’s 4th Water Research Conference, aptly titled The Role of Water Technology Innovation in the Blue Economy. It will feature expert speakers, panelists, and representatives from various stakeholder groups to discuss critical issues affecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin. Perras says that the expected outcome is increased collaboration and effectiveness in the development of common water revitalization strategies.

The winners of the 2017 AquaHacking challenge will be announced on September 13, 2017.

AquaHacking success story

Even with its short history, AquaHacking has produced viable ideas that are gaining traction. The winner of the 2015 competition, an Ottawa-based group called Water Rangers, has since experienced tremendous success, developing a monitoring kit to test, record, and analyze water data. The platform has been adopted by the Ottawa Riverkeeper, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, the Mississippi Valley Conservation Authority, and the Mobile Baykeeper in Alabama, with more than 17,000 observations to its credit. The kits are built to engage the public: they are simple to use and do not require scientific training. The goal is to help the average citizen become an engaged water steward.

Furthermore, the group is developing an offline app with funding from the City of Ottawa, and the Water Rangers recently received a provincial grant to equip 17 community groups across Ontario with the goal of testing 150 sites.

Executive Director Kat Kavanagh speaks with high regard about the AquaHacking experience. “This hackathon was longer than most, which meant we had more time to make sure that we presented a final product that looked and worked well,” she says. “After the event, we rebuilt and rebranded the technology once we met our users and learned what they really needed.”

“One of the core beliefs guiding the Water Ranger philosophy is that gathering data is integral to helping citizens gain a better understanding of local water health,” Kavanagh says. “Understanding water quality data is complex, which can intimidate the average citizen. We are not a replacement for the great scientific work being done by professionals. Instead, we consider the Water Rangers and the work we do to be a gateway for learning about water issues in the hopes that it leads to better understanding and protection.”

Kavanagh praises the annual summit portion of AquaHacking, as well. “The ability to get all of the decision makers into one room to deal with policy as well as environmental impacts was crucial,” she says. “It was an opportunity to meet new people and make new partnerships.”

One of the partnerships that emerged was with the Ottawa Riverkeeper, which now uses Water Rangers for its volunteer Riverwatch outreach program. Ottawa Riverkeeper also continues to advocate for inter-provincial cooperation between Ontario and Québec to protect the Ottawa River Watershed, a process that was initiated at AquaHacking 2015.

“The foundation is extremely proud of the Water Rangers’ success,” Perras says. “Kat and the rest of her team are an excellent example of how an innovative solution to water issues can evolve from an idea that emerged through the hacking challenge challenge to a viable not-for-profit organization that is making a significant contribution in the vital effort to foster the quality and responsible use of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Basin.”

The 2017 AquaHacking Challenge launches on World Water Day, March 22, at Wilfrid Laurier University. For more information about this year’s challenge and to register teams, click here.

Image ©AquaHacking