Water Data Collaborative, a New Program at The Commons - Waterkeeper

Water Data Collaborative, a New Program at The Commons

By: Guest Contributor

Members of the Water Data Collaborative bring expertise on monitoring on a wide variety of chemical, bacterial, and benthic protocols as well as data management and software development targeted at the environmental sector.

By Erin Hofmann. Originally published by The Commons, republished with permission.

The Commons was chartered as an organization built for bringing together ideas, data, people, organizations. We make the most of our shared forum to inspire action that restores our natural world. As an organization that will be five years young in 2021, we are honored to have the new responsibilities of hosting the multi-stakeholder Water Data Collaborative (WDC). WDC’s members include the broadest representation of national community science organizations, Waterkeeper Alliance, Internet of Water, EPA Office of Water, Izaak Walton League of America, Chesapeake Conservancy, and River Network.

The Collaborative’s mission is to grow and maintain an inclusive community of trained and qualified community water scientists who employ best available practices and technologies to provide data that enable the protection and restoration of our nation’s waterways.

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The Water Data Collaborative began four years ago with the assembling of five inaugural Steering Committee members by The Pisces Foundation. Since its conception, the members of the WDC have taken meticulous steps to identify critical areas for support of monitoring programs. Based on this information the Collaborative mapped out a nationally recognized strategy — the community science framework — to elevate, standardize, and educate community science programs. When fully implemented, our vision to improve data flow between typically fragmented water sectors will be realized and the community science data will have more opportunities to be included in public policy and community decision-making.

“The Commons designs products to empower environmental restoration stakeholders and the general public to use technology that accelerates water quality improvement and stronger environmental policies. The Water Data Collaborative’s strategy to bring together core stakeholders across the movement offers new opportunities for discussion and investment not only in these software systems but also the people that we need to support to use them,” explains John Dawes, Executive Director of The Commons.

Baltimore Harbor, known for excessive trash and nutrients, has received attention and rehabilitation thanks to groups like Blue Water Baltimore that invest in monitoring and restoration work.

Exploring the landscape of monitoring

Like all things in the environmental movement, the goals and objectives of the WDC have been shaped by our relationship with the natural world. While our waterways and watersheds may be wholly interconnected, they are also — simultaneously — impressively distinct. Rivers flow from high mountains through deserts, coursing from rural agricultural zones and dense urban cities. The environments, threats, and responses appear to differ so completely on the surface that programs may be deemed incomparable. When data doesn’t look the same can it be treated the same? When it comes to efforts to set up monitoring networks and collaborations these conflicting truths have historically muddied the proverbial waters when it comes to acceptable data collection and uses. The WDC believes that these categorical differences do not preclude the existence of standardized systems to support monitoring programs.

Environmental NGOs, government, and private foundations work relentlessly to improve water quality on a regional and community scale through strategic investment, implementation of BMPs, and monitoring to identify if their actions are moving the needle on reducing pollutants and improving water quality. Unfortunately the technology, approaches, and products aimed at capturing robust data associated with these local and regional efforts have fallen short. Without them the environmental movement is unable to create vital connections and a unified picture that connects local work on the ground to regional initiatives. Thanks to the initial investments from Pisces Foundation and continued commitments by the stakeholders at the WDC, we are doing the work necessary to overcome the obvious challenges and creating better systems and study designs. Study design is vital for the success of any volunteer monitoring program, regardless of what your data use goals are.

Disincentives and roadblocks obstructing collaboration have hindered scalable partnerships and ingestion of data into aggregator portals such as state regulatory databases and federal systems like the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Water Quality Exchange that fuels the How’s My Waterway application. It’s not that people don’t want to share their data, it’s that they can’t. Or it’s not that people don’t know about available protocols, it’s that the existing options won’t work for their program. Unshareable data, unrecognized data, or data that is stuck in only one distribution channel has failed all of us: from the volunteers collecting monitoring samples to the retired angler who wants to spend a weekday fishing but only hooks sick fish. “We want as much data as possible to be discoverable and usable because quantitative data of a known quality provides the best insight possible into the health of our waterways and helps measure the impact that pollution sources as well as restoration efforts have had at moving the needle,” says Peter Colohan, Executive Director of The Internet of Water.

In 2020, members of the Water Data Collaborative began to address data ingestion models and visualization techniques for reporting on and notifying all stakeholders about the possible presence of harmful algal blooms, tackling a pervasive and potentially deadly issue present across the United States.

States and regulatory authorities have systems in place to monitor their waterways for specific water quality parameters. Often, small watershed organizations conduct simultaneous monitoring or fill in gaps left by regulated monitoring efforts. These community groups are often a lifeline for the water(shed) to hold polluters accountable, broaden monitoring networks, and build databases of information that can be used for more strategic long term planning to improve water quality. These broad efforts and the data collected through their samplings require a multilateral approach for discovery and dissemination.

Time to fix the broken approaches

In 2017, Pisces Foundation recognized that breaking down these barriers and building bridges across existing systems can elevate the importance of community science monitoring programs throughout the nation to address water quality issues. “These disparate programs from coast to coast, when woven together through a framework of key steps and standards accepted by regulatory authorities and funding entities, become a powerful force for accountability, change, and improvement to our nation’s waterway,” explains John Dawes.. Pisces Foundation conceived of the Water Data Collaborative to develop and use technology and systems that empower communities to take action to protect water resources.

To inaugurate their vision, the Pisces Foundation selected, organized, and funded stakeholder leaders across the monitoring sector to partner and to facilitate nationwide, fundamental improvements in the infrastructure and resources that support documented and useful community-collected water quality monitoring data. WDC members represent a diverse landscape of community scientists and technical experts. “We believe in a shared vision where credible water quality data collected by community scientists are published, used to inform decisions, and guide actions to ensure our waters remain — or become — healthy, clean, and abundant for use by all communities and ecosystems,” says Katherine Luscher from Waterkeeper Alliance, and Steering Committee Chair.

Waterkeepers and volunteers, such as recreational anglers, develop monitoring programs to not only identify areas of concern but determine strategies to restore waterways to be swimmable, fishable, and drinkable.

In the first of its kind approach, The Water Data Collaborative has laid out the foundation and scaffolding for the future of this effort to elevate the importance of community science data. A lot of the discussions, previous experiences, and goals shared amongst the inaugural steering committee members have cemented a process and procedure intended to embrace acceptable existing monitoring strategies and elevate these efforts to a standard of excellence that must be taken seriously by funders, regulators, and legislators. “Our community science framework has driven our shared mission and vision and guided our selection of pilot projects and development of software systems,” Katherine Baer, River Network.

In the first three years of bringing the steering committee together, thanks to continued support from Pisces Foundation, the members leaned on their own expertise, experience, and organizational goals to outline the vision and plan for the WDC. Thanks to three years focused on planning, thoughtful pilot implementation, and strategic development of our core software systems and services, the pieces of the WDC puzzle have fit together to form a picture of how these distinct programs and regional collaboratives can work together toward a suite of goals.

The Water Data Collaborative built a Community Science Framework to model the critical components of successful monitoring programs for all entities.

Concurrent to building the framework and model for the WDC as an entity, all of the Steering Committee members have undertaken pilot projects to evaluate and explore how to broadly cast the mission of the WDC. In particular, investments were made to:

  • Establish WDC as a vital community science hub and data pipeline to the Internet of Water.
  • Expand Water Reporter, a powerful engagement and monitoring platform, designed to structure, map, and integrate water quality monitoring data for use by any water quality monitoring program regardless of size and budget
  • Expand the Clean Water Hub, a web-based data aggregator application, for Izaak Walton League of America where members and partners can upload protocol-specific data to an aggregator site
  • Collaborate with the Internet of Water on regional data ingestion models and visualization platforms for the State of California and Harmful Algal Blooms response network, Haw River water quality visualization portal, and The Shenandoah Valley.

Throughout 2021, we will work together to expand the WDC beyond the pilot use cases and investments with a suite of service offerings and establishment of institutional and governing rules that will solidify the expansion and accountability of the WDC as the leading authority in elevating the ability of community monitoring data to inform local, regional, and national discussions on water quality.

At the precipice of year four, the Water Data Collaborative is prepared to expand the pilot programs into a suite of core offerings that will assist regional monitoring efforts and individual programs in evaluating and preparing their monitoring programs for better data capacity. We also anticipate that the offerings that we can provide to community science groups and regional leaders will become formalized and available for wide adoption. Finally, we will create the mechanism for these evaluated programs to become the leading standards for all monitoring efforts to strive to achieve. The Water Data Collaborative looks forward to having the support of both a coordinator and fundraising strategist to drive the steering committee as we look to further expand our network of experts, endorsed technical service providers, and monitoring programs.

More information will be available at the website as the year progresses. Any questions, comments, or inquiries about the Water Data Collaborative should be directed to The Commons Executive Director, John Dawes.

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