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to keep all key personnel and partner agencies informed whenever a drinking water advisory is issued, updated or rescinded” and sets a goal to offer enhanced coordination and linkages amongst local, provincial/territorial and federal agencies responsible for safe drinking water in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.
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.