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Smarter Water

Posted on June 16, 2011

A boil water advisory at Windsor, Ontario's VIA Rail station last week.

At this week’s Canadian Water Summit, IBM’s Michael Sullivan highlighted SmartBay, one of the company’s projects in Galway Bay, Ireland (watch a video about the project here). “We built a platform to allow stakeholders to see uniform data,” he said. “We’re streamlining real-time intelligence to allow better decision support. A common set of data means more collaborations and less politics.”

Sullivan mused about a few other “smart water” projects that might be beneficial, briefly considering the idea of a boil water advisory application for smartphones.

Very soon after beginning to the research for last issue’s BWA and do not consume map graphic (see the complete version here), our editorial team made the disappointing realization that currently, Canada has no national database for this kind of information. Instead, data is scattered across provincial, municipal, and regional websites–sometimes it hasn’t been updated in ages, and other times it’s not even posted online. How the Canadian Medical Association Journal arrived at 1,766 boil water advisories across Canada at one point in 2008 is just short of a mystery. One hundred per cent accuracy is a near impossible goal, especially since these instances fluctuate frequently.

During our research phase, we learned that the Canadian Network for Public Health Intelligence (CNPHI) is working on a Drinking Water Advisories system. Its website claims that “real-time notification allows any drinking water authority to keep all key personnel and partner agencies informed whenever a drinking water advisory is issued, updated or rescinded” and sets a goal to offer enhanced coordination and linkages amongst local, provincial/territorial and federal agencies responsible for safe drinking water in various settings.

Due to the continuing challenges of collaboration from varying jurisdictions, however, project lead Tim Beattie wasn’t able to provide us with any data. Instead, we collaborated with The Water Chronicles. This small business produces a free Canada-wide BWA/do not consume map with daily updates that reflect the current situation as accurately as possible. It’s a great resource, but without uniform reporting standards, even this map can’t be 100 per cent accurate.

Lake Ontario Waterkeeper's new app, Swim Guide.

After Sullivan’s address on Tuesday, I spoke with Lake Ontario Waterkeeper Mark Mattson, who told me about Swim Guide, a website (and now a handy iPhone app, launched last week) that allows users to find the closet beach and its safety status, provides historical beach trends, and helps compare local beaches to other beaches. LOW’s goal is to expand Swim Guide to every beach in North America. Adding to existing data, the team will check in with 70 different sources who monitor about 800 beaches per day and record 70,000 different points of data.

Over the past five years or so, this grassroots organization has made the connections required to procure data for its watershed reports and the Swim Guide. So why is it so difficult for CNPHI, a division of Health Canada, to make its drinking water advisories system available?

LOW’s VP, Krystyn Tully, says it’s different for government. While the Swim Guide’s audience is ordinary people going to the beach, she says, government departments are usually trying to fulfill the needs of an entirely different group of stakeholders. “We had the freedom to start building a system on Lake Ontario. We kept adding more regions until we covered our watershed. It was a very organic, adaptive process without the same pressures that the federal government faces–it’s hard to invent in that kind of environment.”

Tully says LOW looks at monitoring databases in the United States as part of its data collection. While the U.S. has good information, better standards, and funding, one of the big challenges, she says, is that individual databases don’t talk to each other. “There are huge inefficiencies,” she says. That’s one reason Tully thinks that IBM’s projects are interesting. “IT intuitively understands how infrastructure works and interacts,” she says.

So when will “ordinary people” have access to a water quality app? Mattson says that LOW–whose motto is swim, drink, fish–is working on it. Now that they’ve launched the “swim” app, he hinted that the next big project involves “drink.” I’m looking forward to following the group’s progress.

5 Responses to “Smarter Water”

  1. bob brouse says:

    Hi, there is a whole lot more than a dbase involved in drinking water. Here at the home of these bwa’s your speaking of we spend an awful lot of time and money updating the bwa map.The cmaj was nice enough to ask us for the data and we offered it.
    In short order some municipalities offer info freely, some would rather you went away. Some provinces have privacy issues with the data, maybe it is and maybe it isn’t good for business. Then
    there is the size of the population, maybe the bwa is left on for years. In a lot of cases its cheaper to literally move on than spend the money to install water systems. There are, from my
    recollection thousands of private water systems, apartment buildings,resorts and private enterprise’s that will be fairly direct
    about an inquiry from our researchers. And the curious places that they should go right after the phone call. How about wells? has been working for years, to get the trust that we will publish accurate information, respond properly and get the thing off when its off. As well theres reservation’s and fn lands, then theres oceans, rivers and so on. There are 22 organisations that might have something to do with water near you, i look forward to a reply about this. When talking about our research,and our media please go the source.
    bob brouse

  2. bob brouse says:

    Hi, the above response is not a knock on the folks at your mag, its more of an effort to explain that it isnt as easy as a dbase.
    we applaud all the efforts of people working on water.
    thank you
    bob brouse

  3. admin says:

    Hi Bob,

    Thank you for highlighting exactly how difficult it is to get this data. As mentioned above, The Water Chronicles does a commendable job compiling data from all of its resources. It’s hard work and you do it well.

    You’re right about expenses and capacity. We’ve written about these issues several times, especially around the proposed First Nations Drinking Water Safety Act.

    Your concern about privacy is also valid. What right-minded municipality wants to tell the world about its compromised drinking water? But let’s think of it another way: do the citizens of Canada have a right to know what they’re drinking? Should we compromise health and safety for reputation?

    Perhaps we could think of required BWA/water quality listings as an opportunity or incentive. Some thoughts:

    1) Public, nationwide listings would perhaps serve as a good source with which to educate everyday citizens. If people have easily accessible, up-to-date, and readable data, perhaps they’d be more inclined to take action and demand better standards, monitoring, training, funding, et cetera from the government.

    2) If a utility is compromised and it shows up on public listings, how fast can its operators solve the problem? Could a public database also include a description of the problem and how/when it was solved? In that case, the utility’s dedication to safe, reliable water could be a good news story. (At Water Canada, we love good news stories.)

    Just playing devil’s advocate.

  4. bob brouse says:

    In response to devils advocate. Our position is open disclosure. As with any open disclosure set up, sometimes people dont really want to know all of the news. Do people really want to contemplate pharma in the water? the non regulation of nano technology in water plants? I respect what your saying about disclosure , a national database of all known utilities would be perfect. (my phone number is on our website;-) kidding aside, Canada needs to have a national department just for water. Canada needs to be aware of the coming challenges on the bulk water issue. In all my years of being a journalist, I have yet to find a credible source for total amount of water available, and exactly how much water we use seems to be anyone’s guess.
    What these conversations seem to be leading to is a new awareness of water and our use of it. I commend you and your magazine for bringing us new reports and information on this very important topic. And for the feds reading this, Hurry up.

  5. Mike says:

    As an employee of a municipal water supplier, I believe transparency is incredibly important. Of course, I’m at a worker level. I see all sorts of politics with management, upper management and the municipal council that sometimes impede complete transparency.

    This of course is a comment on the difficulty of getting some information as some municipalities are pretty private.

    What municipalities are good at is obeying legislation because provincial inspectors will find non-compliance sooner or later.

    What I’m saying is that to help make information available universally, lobby for stronger legislation that makes it a complete requirement.

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