Turning on the tap seems so mundane, between the dishes, the washing machine, taking a shower, and simply getting a glass of water, most people don’t think twice about the quality, how much they use, or where their water comes from. Why? Because useful, meaningful data is not accessible for most people. The importance of water data has gone unnoticed in the past. When water resources run low or the water smells or tastes different, it then becomes imperative to find the problem and the solution—that’s when we turn to data. Water data is helpful to inform water managers and users and allow them to foresee shortages or quality issues. Open water data that’s publicly accessible, makes it possible for people to do their own analysis on that data in order to hold government accountable and make informed decisions.
But there’s a lack of accessible water data. The Aspen Institute Dialogue Series on Sharing and Integrating Water Data for Sustainability addressed this shortage of available water data through its new report, The Internet of Water, published last month. The goal of the report was to create a national water data and information policy framework for sharing and publishing public data.
The Aspen Institute, an educational and policy studies organization, serves as a platform for leadership and the exchange of ideas. Through its dialogue series, The Aspen Institute challenges contributors to think creatively about how to confront issues in society and presents new ideas and values gathered from moderators, accomplished peers, and seminar participants.
In The Internet of Water, the dialogue series introduces three key findings and recommendations to develop each one with the goal of creating an open water data resource. From the report:
The value of open, shared and integrated water data has not been widely quantified, documented or communicate
The most necessary step in using water data for sustainability is making public water data open by default, discoverable and digitally accessible
The Appropriate Architecture for an “Internet of Water” is a federation of data producers, hubs, and users
The first finding touches on the value of an open water data resource, which the report refers to as the Internet of Water. The report says, “The Internet of Water follows the organizational structure of the Internet with a backbone organization that provides support and governance structures to ongoing data sharing communities; connecting these communities to one another.” According to the report, this internet should be created by the users with the intention that it will include meaningful, accurate and easily accessible data. The report says that users can best determine which data are needed and how the data can be used to advance their own purposes.
The second finding states that an open water data resource is a priority. Open data is for water managers to accurately produce a water budget for their city, county or region. The shared data resource does not have to be perfect as changes will come when users find what data is most helpful and what formats are the most effective in being able to understand the data and share it across platforms. In Opening the Flow of Water Data, a story in the summer 2017 Data issue of Headwaters magazine, Kathy King, a principal of a Boulder-based Redstone Strategy Group who spoke with water managers, researchers, industry leaders and environmentalists for the dialogue series, says that quality issues will fix themselves:
“We want to encourage data producers and water agencies to put data out there without too much concern for the quality, recognizing that quality can improve over time and that sunshine is the best disinfectant,” King says. “By getting it out there and getting it used, we can get a better sense of where the needs are and also where data quality really matters.”
There is an amount of responsibility for those who provide the data. According to the report, water providers should ensure that the data is as accurate as possible and document the necessary metadata, or data about data. If bad data is published, then the purpose of this resource is not met; garbage in, garbage out. Users must then decide whether or not the data is useful. If the data is not useful, the users should be able to discard it with the intention of keeping the Internet of Water streamlined and easily navigable.
The third and final finding relates to who should control the data resource. According to the report, the internet resource should be controlled and maintained by those who use and collect the data as they understand its importance and will see what needs improvement. The organizations that use this resource should all be connected by a central organization that facilitates communication, but should not govern the use or production of data.
With these findings, the Internet of Water report presents an implementation plan is. From the report:
Articulate a vision
Enable open water data
Create an Internet of Water
The report states that the first step in creating this Internet of Water is to start small. It might be beneficial to start pilot programs that provide data to address short-term issues and to work out any discrepancies so that the initial start of the Internet of Water can be as useful as possible. The second recommendation of the report is to create a public data catalog. The report states that this catalog should be maintained by the states because the states have the most access to different agencies and have authority over water rights and water quality parameters. The report’s third recommendation is that data hubs, such as the U.S. Geological Survey, should be used to their full potential. Many public agencies provide water data that is open to the public but can be difficult to find and interpret. This data is meant only for that agency to use and report on and is not user-friendly. There should be no restrictions on who can see and use water data.
Despite all of the potential benefits the Internet of Water has to offer, some organizations are reluctant to share their water data. According to King, municipalities are hesitant to provide water data, saying that past publications of water data have led to adverse attention or have been misunderstood by the media or other organizations. King also says that data is out there but is not necessarily useful, “It’s not so much that the data doesn’t exist, but that it’s isolated and not shared and integrated in a way that can always be transformed into information for decision making.”
Water data is becoming more and more important in the world we live in. As with climate change threatening precipitation amounts and population numbers swelling, it is essential that water managers have all of the tools necessary to ensure that all citizens have a safe, reliable water supply and for users to gain knowledge about the amounts and quality of precious water resources.
For more coverage on water data, look for the summer 2017 issue of Headwaters magazine, which will hit mailboxes in July. And keep watching for additional data-related blog posts!