AHA Conference 2016 – Technology & Better Water Resources Management

AHA Conference 2016 - Water Data Management & Technology

Stream hydrographers from all around Oceania gather for the biennial Australia Hydrographers Association Conference, which was held this year in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Water monitoring is a place-based activity meaning that hydrographers are widely dispersed all across the landscape with very little opportunity to interact, build community, share experiences, and develop best practices.

Attendance of this conference should be a priority for all hydrographers, but many are too closely tied to their responsibilities to be given the opportunity.

As a case in point, consider Mic Clayton from Snowy Hydro. Mic was honored at the AHA banquet dinner with a lifetime achievement award, or at least he should have been. Mic was not at the dinner to receive his award because he had to prepare for an early morning field trip to do a critical snow survey in the Snowy Mountains. He was back at the conference the following afternoon and there was a plan to present him with his award at the end of the afternoon session. However, Mic almost missed that presentation as well, as he was engaged in resolving some field logistics problems on his cell phone. The very commitment to his work that is so deserving of celebration almost prevented him from being honored.

Technological innovation was the theme of many of the conference presentations and one of the biggest new things is the Internet of Things (IoT).

The general idea is that low cost (<$50); low power (AA battery will last for several years); medium range (5 → 20km); low infrastructure cost (< $5k per gateway); low service cost (network charges < $1/mo); bi-directional communications will be a game-changer in water monitoring. IoT fills a gap that exists between high-bandwidth SCADA systems and high-cost remote telecommunications. There were several presentations on technologies that leverage this new capability for improving the way that water is managed.

The keynote address by James Price of Experience MattersThe barriers to and the benefits of managing data, information, and knowledge as a business asset” resonated deeply for me. It is intuitively obvious that we should be able to stop doing harm to our watersheds. We just need to draw attention to the connection between our activities and important metrics of watershed health and we will all start choosing beneficial behaviors over detrimental ones, leading to progressively better outcomes. One possible explanation for why we often fail in protecting water security is because we are unskillful in converting sparse, arcane, and complex data into useful metrics of watershed health that are successful in triggering a change in behavior.

James explains how data, information, and knowledge are, collectively, the neglected and under-valued 4th asset.

Whereas the other three assets, namely financial, physical, and human resources, are all managed at the executive level (i.e. CFO, CTO, and CHRO), the executive rank lacks anyone who is personally responsible and accountable to ensure that business decisions are always informed by the best possible supporting evidence. In other words, there is no one overseeing data collection and information management to ensure that the right data about the right things are being collected in the right way at the right time and places, and to also ensure that the right analysis is in place to provision decision-makers with timely, meaningful, and impactful information.

If what James says is true for businesses with clear authority, mandate, and motivation to improve decision-making success, then what hope is there for watersheds?

Is a tragedy of the commons inevitable in any multi-jurisdictional, multi-agency, multi-stakeholder system with distributed authority, and hence, lack of direct accountability for the collective effects of competing objectives in a common pool resource?

I hope not.

The first step in finding a solution to any problem is to be able to clearly state what the problem is.

James has provided a framework for understanding the disconnect that exists between water data, information, and knowledge in the context of a desperate need for more helpful metrics for watershed health and water security. Once we can explain our failures we can start planning for success.

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