Big Data Helps Canada Keep Waters Clean

Big Data Helps Canada Keep Waters Clean


As water travels through and across a watershed, its quantity and quality changes dramatically based on human activities and the things – usually chemicals – that we add to it.

Understanding the increasing pressures on watersheds has been the work of the Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) and IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies (CAS). The partnership, which just celebrated its 10 anniversary, brings together the latest data tools to tackle one of the biggest challenges in managing water – ensuring that people across the watershed have a fuller understanding of what is taking place.

Together, ACWA and Alberta CAS have developed the conceptual framework to integrate existing and future data (such as streaming data from sensors) to provide scholars and practitioners a way to view watersheds differently – a way that is spatially explicit and near real time.

This approach parallels coarse and fine focus on a microscope – we can ‘focus’ on fine detail in key locations or on processes that warrant attention to detail – yet step back for a broad view when we need to evaluate large scale patterns.

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For example, ACWA’s initial research with the IBM Alberta CAS revealed that the distribution and number of precipitation gauging stations was insufficient to allow simple empirical prediction of river flow as a function of rain and snowpack. As a result, ACWA will broaden its collaborative networks by developing a simple water app that will plug into its Intelligent Operations for Water framework to crowd-source precipitation data to fill data gaps, and engage the public to improve water literacy and knowledge.

These advances also have deep implications for the energy industry, for example, where ACWA’s engineered technologies could be applied to test and treat wastewater at remote extraction or processing sites and for “smart sewers” that live-monitor effluent before it reaches the treatment plant, to track toxins at the source.

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