Person looking over Bow River basin near Lake Louise
Lee Jackson

March 22, 2021

Water wisdom on tap with new data-sharing platform

Collaboration between UCalgary and IBM connects stakeholders to better measure and predict environmental impacts on watershed

In the same way that rivulets, rain, streams and snowmelt flow together to create a watershed, a new digital platform initiative led by UCalgary in collaboration with IBM pools together data from multiple sources — sensors, scientists, and citizens — to create an accessible information reservoir that will support improved watershed science, policy and management across Canada.

“Water management in this country has historically been highly fractured and siloed across dozens of agencies and jurisdictions. The challenge of course is that water doesn’t pay attention to political or jurisdictional divides, it follows the watershed boundaries,” says Dr. Lee Jackson, PhD, professor in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“That’s why this new data collaboration platform is so exciting and important: It breaks down the silos and opens up access to data so we can work across jurisdictions to find broader solutions to water challenges.”

Collaboration with IBM

Clearly, building a watershed data-sharing platform is not simply a matter of inputting a few bits of information into a spreadsheet. It is highly complex and dynamic. So, in addition to incorporating the state-of-the-art equipment, data, analysis, and expertise available within Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) and working closely with other labs, Jackson and the team collaborated with the IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies, using IBM’s suite of tools to build the Sustainable Watershed Integrated Management (SWIM) platform from the ground up. Note: The SWIM platform is best accessed using Safari, Internet Explorer, or Microsoft Edge.

“Our initial foray into this was a six-month proof-of-concept project looking at the Bow River Basin,” Jackson explains. “We started putting together data sources, figuring out what barriers to collaborating were, and we became aware of IBM’s suite of software that large companies use, and the multi-stakeholder collaboration grew from there.” Jackson is UCalgary lead for the SWIM platform, and scientific director of ACWA.

Wide range of experts step up

“Our interest was to work with Dr. Jackson to help bring his vision to life,” says Monica Sawchyn, executive director, IBM Alberta Centre for Advanced Studies. “We drew on IBM’s global resources, bringing together experts in analytics, data and database management, enterprise design thinking, open source systems, and specific software tools.”

The challenge was to create a platform that could handle a multiplicity of resources and types of data. For instance, SWIM uses streaming software to read real-time data from watershed sensors. It amalgamates data from research scientists, citizen scientists, and government agencies. It creates sophisticated models using geographic information systems based on digital elevation models. And it allows for information sharing and includes discussion forums.

Improved data sharing impacts community

The high-quality water that most Canadians take for granted is threatened by droughts, toxic water from blue-green algae, pollution and climate change. Common measurements and the shared framework of the SWIM platform will facilitate a more holistic, watershed-based management to those challenges.

Beyond water quality monitoring, the SWIM platform also incorporates other data, including how much water there is and where, which is vital to flood risk mitigation. “We want to know if there are blind spots in monitoring, and therefore the strategic locations of new gauging stations,” Jackson says. “If an event like the 2013 flood were to happen again, for instance, could we see it coming more than a couple of hours before it hits Calgary? That could make all the difference for folks living along the banks of the Bow.”

Potential for expansion and growth

The SWIM platform will be accessible to anyone simply by signing up for an account, with a goal of creating broader public awareness and literacy for water. “You might imagine that science classrooms with water in the curriculum might want to show students where they are located in the watershed basin, what is their watershed address?” Jackson says.

“Into the future, communities could use this platform to create better water management systems, including in remote, northern and Indigenous communities,” Sawchyn says. “And in terms of where this goes next, we see it evolving into a more open cloud- and AI-enabled solution that uses machine learning to help expand the benefits and accessibility.”

Jackson adds: “Our goal is to connect watershed stakeholders, give them a common framework and reliable data to build on, to talk to each other, solve problems together, share knowledge and ideas, and optimize water resource management.”

Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) is a globally unique test bed and research facility where researchers, municipalities and industry can de-risk wastewater treatment and monitoring technologies. It is a partnership between the University of Calgary and The City of Calgary, as part of the Urban Alliance.