IBM taps tech to manage world’s safe water supply

The “green” movement encourages us to preserve natural resources, and most of us regard safe, clean water as a fundamental right. Yet without proper management, it could become a scarce resource.

As part of Armonk, NY-based IBM’s corporate Smarter Planet strategy, it is targeting this critical area around the world.

Dave Steeves, branch directory for energy at IBM Canada in Calgary, says that there are three drivers that make this the ideal time to throw its technology at the issue: we are more instrumented than ever, with sensors, RFID, and other monitoring devices almost universally available; the technologies talk to each other; and data is tied to repositories so there are no longer islands of information.

The hope, he says, is that this will ultimately allow real-time visibility of water usage data, so it can be monitored and controlled much as electricity is today with smart meters.

Alberta’s WaterPortal is one of the beneficiaries of this convergence. A not-for-profit created by Alberta WaterSMART, the Bow River Basin Council, IBM and Tesera Systems,  the portal aggregates water information from many sources.

“Currently, the WaterPortal is working to provide free and open access to all publicly available sources of water data, information and research on Alberta,” says Alberta WaterSMART’s Mike Scarth in an e-mail.

Ultimately, he estimates that this will include data from over 1000 sources, containing over 25,000 records on surface and groundwater in the province.

“Southern Alberta is a desert,” says Steeves. “It relies heavily on aquifers and runoff from the mountains. Water management is becoming more and more critical as aquifers dry up and melt from glaciers slows.”

He says that IBM realized the technologies developed for oil and gas simulations could be used in water discovery and management, and got involved with WaterSMART believing that if people could see and use the information being gathered, they would use water more intelligently.

“IBM Canada is contributing leading-edge and environmentally-friendly Web hosting and web security hardware, software and support services to the project,” says Scarth.

As well, he says, the company has recently signed an agreement to help build a 150,000 square foot “green” data centre, in partnership with Kelowna, BC’s RackForce Networks, powered by “green” hydro-generated power and configured in the most efficient, environmentally-friendly way.

In addition, Scarth says, Cochrane, Alberta-based Tesera Systems integrates open source GIS (geographic information system) portal technology with the information portal technology, allowing all users from across the water community access to information and decision support tools without needing an advanced understanding of a GIS based system.

Alberta is not the only beneficiary of IBM’s water management technology. The New York-based Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries partnered with the company to develop an advanced sensor network that captures data streams and conducts advanced data analysis in real time.

It allows researchers to measure temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen and pollution loading, as well as mapping fish populations through acoustical data. The first batch of floating sensors was deployed in the Hudson River in August, 2008; the institute hopes the technology, once proven, will be installed in other rivers.

A similar initiative is ongoing in Galway, Ireland, where a water management centre of excellence, SmartBay Galway, collects a steady stream of real-time data on water quality, aquaculture, chemical content, wave energy and tidal movement, helping local fisherman manage shellfish crops and beach patrols watch for riptides or jellyfish schools.

A second centre of excellence in Amsterdam, Netherlands uses analytics and high-performance computing (HPC) to help prevent flooding of its low-lying areas, technology that Steeves hopes is exportable to help places like New Orleans.

The centre will focus on providing Dutch government and disaster control agencies with improved flood forecasting and prediction modeling; through gaming technology and 3D internet skills, it will create realistic models and simulations, drawing upon IBM expertise in smart sensors to supply input data.

“There are islands of data out there,” Steeves says. “Now that we’re instrumented and interconnected, we have to figure out how to create intelligent information, and bring it together for better use of resources.”

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