Site Logo

The Human Side of Water Data

4 months, 25+ machine-readable datasets,15 events, $12,000 in ‘big checks’ and 20+ open data projects.

These are the numbers, but they don’t tell the real story behind the California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge nor the immeasurable energy, enthusiasm, interest, collaboration, momentum, and as one organizer put it, “heart” that resulted from it.

The California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge kicked off in June as a collaborative effort to leverage existing data to bring safe, clean drinking water to every Californian. While not a new problem, a confluence of factors, including California’s 2016 Open and Transparent Water Data act, heightened awareness of unsafe water via the crisis in Flint, MI and progress of CA’s Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund, were a recipe for action.

An Opportunity to Address Water Challenges

On any given day in California, 200,000 Californians turn on their taps and the water that comes out is unsafe to drink and may be unfit for basic needs like bathing. Annually, up to 1 million Californians lack access to clean, safe drinking water at some point during the year, and other studies put these numbers much higher. Droughts and other disruptions in water supply can limit or eliminate access to safe drinking water for days, months, or years, with some communities exposed to unsafe water for more than a decade.

While the most publicized examples are in rural areas, delivering sufficient, safe, and affordable drinking water poses a challenge to small systems and domestic well users in almost every region of the state. California has 7,000+ drinking water providers and the vast majority are small systems with less than 3,000 connections. Not only are these small systems the most vulnerable to contamination or disruption, they are also the least likely to have the resources and expertise to address it.

Why Data? 

Data can take many forms, but at its core it’s pieces of information. This Challenge highlighted ‘Open Data’ — pieces of information that have been made digital, machine-readable and public — that can be leveraged to gain insights, develop tools, and identify new uses of existing data to address this growing problem.

Mountains of data are collected everyday, at every level of governance, but it is often siloed and used for a singular purpose, such as regulatory compliance. This Challenge was born of the opportunity to use it for much more.

Data Can’t Do It Alone — It Needs Agents

Combining the under-tapped value of this data with the idea that the most innovative and implementable solutions are born of collaborative effort, the Challenge brought together impacted community members, local & state government leaders, innovators, and data scientists to demonstrate data’s role in supporting access to clean drinking water.

Participants were encouraged to collaborate broadly to design and build tools that empower communities to better understand, communicate, and visualize the problem, and anticipate and hedge against vulnerabilities.

Over the course of 4 months, a series of events and community-led activities such as the National Day of Civic Hacking, online tutorials, fireside chats, and hackathons bridged these often disconnected groups to build better tools, together. Community centered design is a solution designed with, you guessed it, a community, and many of the most powerful submissions were those that addressed an issue identified by the people on the ground actually experiencing it.

A Large (and Still Growing) Community of Support

Launched by the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research and partners West Big Data Innovation Hub, Water Foundation, Imagine H2O, Bay Area Council, and the State agency stewards of water data such as State Water Resources Control Board and Department of Water Resources. A host of additional partners signed on and were pivotal in the success of the Challenge, including The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, Code for America brigades across California, WELL, and Government Operations Agency (GovOps), among others. This is the third and largest water data challenge the state has coordinated, starting with the GovOps GreenGov Innovation Challenge in 2015 and the Waterboard’s 2016 White House California Water Data Challenge.

A call for commitments — new, specific, and measurable actions taken by community stakeholders in support of demonstrating the power of civic engagement and open data to improve access to safe drinking water — was answered and the list grew to more than 30 commitments between the kick-off in June to the Awards Summit in October.

Some highlights include:

  • OpenOakland dedicated its National Day of Civic Hacking to the Water Data Challenge along with participation from other Code for America brigades including Code4Sac.
  • CalWater gave $12,000 in BIG checks to 8 winning teams
  • The Berkeley Division of Data Science announced the launch of the Berkeley Water Data Collaborative, a new initiative for interested students and State agencies to continue to drive innovative solutions to water-related issues across California.
  • The Government Operations Agency in partnership with CalHR announced the establishment of a Data Analyst Classification in Civil Service to provide an entry point and a career path for data specialists in state government
  • Joaquin Esquivel, an appointed board member of the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) announced 10 newly established internships at the SWRCB to continue to leverage the energy, skills, and expertise of engaged individuals

In addition, this group has committed to doing it again! Sign up to the mailing list or on Slack to stay in the loop for the 2019 CA Drinking Water Data Challenge and other water data related opportunities.

Summit and Awards Ceremony

The Awards Ceremony and Summit was held on October 18th at the Los Angeles River Center to recognize teams and partners that worked hard throughout the summer to develop relationships and products that help us get closer to a solution. We were joined by Honorable Mike Eng, the author of the Human Right to Water Bill, to speak about his journey of the passage of the law. When describing the impact of legislative work he said: “we are giving voices, power, and credibility to people who normally don’t have anyone to stand up for them.”

“These projects, and the meaningful connections formed throughout the challenge, were possible because of dozens of partners and sponsors with concrete commitments to action,” notes West Big Data Innovation Hub Executive Director, Meredith Lee. Along with a growing community poised to amplify the results from this open data effort, join the conversation on slack and social media with #CAWaterDataChallenge.


Winning Team: Lovelace Ladies

Team Members: Anna Waldron, Elena Smith

Description: Tool for auto-identification of reports submitted with incorrect units and visualization of contributing factors

Award: Most Data-licious

Winning Team: Function(water,data) {science}

Team Members: Rich Pauloo, Amanda Fencl, Hervé Guillon, Alvar Escriva-Bou

Description: Predicting the impact of future droughts on domestic well vulnerability in California’s Central Valley

Award: Most Engaging by Design

Winning Team: OpenOakland

Team Members: Aaron Hans, Robert Gibboni, Rucker Alex, Yotam Hacohen

Description: Visualizing exceedance levels of water system contaminants

Award: Moonshot

Winning Team: ARGO

Team Members: Patrick Atwater, Christopher Tull, David Marulli

Description: Comprehensive repository of water rates in California — key for ensuring affordable access to clean water for all

Award: Rising Innovator

Winning Team: Code4Sac

Team Members: Jacqueline Barkoski, Chuan-Shin Chong

Description:Identifying communities with a high risk of shortage using a multifactor vulnerability score

Award: Team Spirit and Collaboration

Winning Team: Dammed if you do

Team Members: Daniel Siegel, Colin King-Bailey, Jessica Rahman, Dan Constable

Description: DAMMS: Dam Assessment Mapping and Safety System: Communicating dam safety through visualizations, building support for change

Awards: Ready to Go and People’s Choice

Winning Team: Get the Lead Out (won two awards)

Team Members: Laura Deehan, Sadie Gill, Lo Benichou

Description: Where in San Francisco is there lead in school drinking water? How can we take results from SFUSD school lead testing and create a tool to better visualize the scale of the problem.