The Ottawa River is about to be hacked and that’s a good thing

After Victoria Day weekend, most Canadians flock to lakes and rivers for summer activities such as swimming, boating, or fishing. But in Ottawa on May 30, more than a dozen teams will be looking into how to hack those fresh waterways.

Aqua Hacking 2015 is a coding competition that’s calling on developers to create a mobile or web application for the Ottawa River, organized by the Montreal-based de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation. The foundation, a charity created by the family that owned media conglomerate Telemedia until it was sold in 2000, is hoping the competition will help in its wider mission to preserve the Ottawa River, as well as spurring a series of similar projects across Canada.

“They want to try and protect the lakes and rivers of their own country,”  says Dominique Monchamp, general manager of the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation. “We want to create a huge movement of developers around water issues.”

Teams presenting to a jury at the Ottawa River Summit in Gatineau, Que. on May 30 will be competing for $15,000 in prizes. There’s a $10,000 grand prize and the second and third place prizes are $3,0000 and $2,000 respectively. A jury will decide the winner based on a presentation. Jury members include the grand-daughter of famous film director water conservationist Jacques-yves Cousteau, who herself is planning a documentary series on the Ottawa River, and Mitch Garber, Cirque du Soleil’s chair of the board of directors.

Developers put their heads together at an Aqua Hacking meetup on March 12.
Developers put their heads together at an Aqua Hacking meetup on March 12.

The foundation has the support of a corporate partner in IBM Corp. It is providing $10,000 towards the project in addition to the time of several of its employees, as well as resources for developers to use. (Teams that develop with IBM’s BlueMix platform will be given a bonus in the final scoring, as an incentive to use it.)

“We have a history of involvement with water issues,” says Lila Adamec, Canadian ecosystem development leader at IBM Canada. “We’vepartnerd with government organizations, utility providers, and other businesses to design strategies and solutions for smarter water use, so when Aqua Hacking and the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation approached us, we were as enthusiastic about the idea as they were.”

IBM was able to reach developers to spread awareness of the contest and provide expertise on how to organize a hackathon-style contest, says Sandro di Cori, director of operations for the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation.

“That’s the world they know and that’s not where our strength is,” he says. “There’s always an expert of BlueMix there for every coding session.”

For IBM, it’s also an opportunity to identify potential talent for hiring, Adamec says.

“We’re always keeping an eye out for innovative developers, designers, and coders and the Ottawa/Gatineau tech community has no shortage of talent in those areas. Our staff will be attending the event and we’re excited to see what our Aqua Hackers have come up with,” she says.

There are at least 14 teams involved in the competition, and some have been participating in weekly working meetings since Feb. 26. So how exactly do you hack a river? Turns out more ways than you might think. IBM and the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation worked to create an opportunity map of 150 different problems, fitting the issues facing the river into 15 major topics, and started engaging developers around those issues and supplying them with data from governments and NGOs.

One team is working on an application that will help track fish disease in the river, Monchamp says. Fisherman will be encouraged to use the app to take a picture of the fish they catch and tag it with GPS data. Instead of uploading that post-catch selfie to Instagram for bragging rights, they’ll be helping experts identify disease that threatens the fish population.

“There’s ways you can identify disease from the images of the fish, from tumours or deformations in the fish,” he says.

Another team is working on an app that will make information about water levels on the Ottawa River more accessible, di Cori says. Since the river’s levels are controlled with dams to prevent flooding, it’s possible to know when they are opening and closing and the resulting impact on water levels.

“Anyone in a neighbouring community be interested in knowing if the water level is rising a couple of levels or not,” he says. “Maybe they own a boat at a local pier.”

Ecologists could also learn more about how fish are affected by water levels, he says.

Teams are submitting the final betas of their apps May 23, and the May 30 final presentation at the Hilton Lac Leamy in Gatineau is open to the public. But what will be the final event for this Aqua Hacking project will hopefully be the start of a larger movement, Monchamp says. IBM is also on board to organize future Aqua Hacking events.

“Our hope is to bring Aqua Hacking to every city of Canada,” he says. “We want to build a bridge between the water world and the IT experts.”

Something to keep in mind when you’re on the way to the beach this weekend.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Editorial director of IT World Canada. Covering technology as it applies to business users. Multiple COPA award winner and now judge. Paddles a canoe as much as possible.

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