Open Water Data
The challenge and the organization
Water management, too often doesn’t get the required attention, with potentially devastating consequences, particularly in India where extreme weather patterns are becoming more common. In late 2015, for example, a combination of poor urban planning and record-breaking downpours in the city of Chennai led to the worst flooding there in more than a century. Several months later, the city of Latur’s water reservoir ran dry, and the city was dependent on water transported in bulk on trains from more than 300 kilometers away.
Events like these are not just the result of natural forces. Without basic data such as soil moisture levels, daily precipitation, seasonal groundwater fluctuations and river flows it is difficult for planners and local governments to adequately manage water resources in a decentralized fashion so they can be better prepared for extreme or unanticipated weather events.
Since 2011, Datameet, a community of tech enthusiasts and development sector professionals in India have worked to improve access to datasets in the public domain. Where much needed data wasn’t available publicly they have worked to create these datasets. As with many other sectors, water remains a sector wherein good data is hard to come by, either available only in silos or behind closed licensing agreements. Some members of Datameet banded together in July 2017 and set up the ‘Open Water Data’ project to address specifically these issues. Their goal is to make available much needed data to facilitate better research and planning for water resources, both in urban and rural spaces.
How they did it
The group decided that creating a map-based web app about water resources would be the best way to make the information widely available to researchers and others. They turned to a suite of Google tools to build the site. Craig Dsouza, the project’s coordinator, says they chose Google’s Earth Engine platform because it has the most comprehensive publicly available water-related data sets, the best mapping technology for displaying the data and a powerful cloud-based platform for running the website.
“The Google tools allowed us to build a user-friendly, intuitive website which was one of our critical design principles” says Dsouza. “The site’s simplicity and usability is important, because the target audience for this data typically don’t have programming backgrounds. Everyone knows how to use Google Maps, so they can come to the site and immediately get the information they need.”
With the Open Water Data Web app, researchers, local governments and others now have crucial data at their fingertips that can help them better manage water resources, plan for flood mitigation, improve access to water in areas where it is scarce by developing simple models to estimate water availability and demand.
“There is a tremendous water scarcity in India, and water is fundamental to so many of the country’s development needs,” says Dsouza. “With the Open Water Data Web app, we are now taking a large step forward with regards to transparency into water, which is vital to managing the resource.”
He adds that the group is working on giving people access to even more data, including soil moisture, groundwater, lakes and rivers, water flows, reservoir shortages, urban and agricultural use and more. A process is also in the works wherein researchers, citizen initiatives, non-profits and others will be able to contribute their own water datasets to the platform to share with others. This is bringing together a community of open data enthusiasts and planners to debate solutions.
“Ultimately, we hope the app and the transparency it brings will help the country make more sustainable choices about how water is being used,” he says. “Right now the data isn’t available for doing that. We hope the project and the community it’s bringing together will contribute to solving what has been one of India’s most intractable problems.”