Picture a scenario where multi-disciplinary teams of young innovators work to solve complex freshwater issues. This scenario is known as the AquaHacking Challenge. Established in 2015, AquaHacking engages young innovators from various sectors to research and develop clean-tech engineering, web, and mobile solutions to water issues affecting the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Watershed.

Teams receive access to relevant regional data as well as mentors and experts in water, programming, artificial intelligence (AI), design, data analysis, business strategy, and marketing. Each year, the winning team is supported in bringing its innovation to market through an incubator or accelerator. “It’s called demand-driven innovation because the end product is designed to resolve a real issue in the water sector,” says Kariann Aarup, an advisor with the de Gaspé Beaubien Foundation, which has spearheaded AquaHacking.

Solving water issues with AI

One such issue is the blue-green algae crisis in Lake Erie. It’s something Jason DeGlint, a member of the 2017 winning team, is passionate about. A PhD student in the Department of Systems Design Engineering at the University of Waterloo, DeGlint is working to build a cost-effective portable system that can automatically capture water samples and identify the different species of blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) in water by combining digital imagery with artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The current process of shipping small water samples to a certified research lab for an algae expert to view under a microscope is tedious, time-consuming, and expensive. “Being able to automate the process this way enables large amounts of data to be examined much more cost-effectively,” says DeGlint, who describes the program as an awesome growing and learning experience. “AquaHacking helped me to understand a lot of the bigger picture of water, how big the industry is, and gave me the opportunity to work with business advisors and mentors.”

A fresh look at the industry

With 11 water-tech solutions and businesses firmly established since 2015 and a growing interest from organizations and municipalities across North America, the organization is now looking to scale out the AquaHacking Challenge and bring it to watersheds across the continent. “We are building on what we have learned over the past four years to improve the program and make it more easily accessible for others to implement locally,” says Aarup.  “In 2019 we will host our planned Great Lakes St. Lawrence River Watershed Challenge and given the interest we are seeing from various other watershed-focused organizations, we hope to have two regional co-hosted events as well”.

The AquaHacking team is working on a “playbook” and aiming to make the program available through a licence agreement by 2020. “Certain elements of the program design are essential for its success.  Success in this case means meaningful solutions are developed and ready for implementation and the quality of fresh water is improved.”

The AquaHacking Challenge approach is bringing fresh perspectives to the water sector. It’s also generating excitement among university students in the tech sector who care about environmental issues. “They’re finding out they can bring their interest in AI, for instance, to bear fruit in the environmental sector, something they might not have thought they could do,” says Aarup, “so it’s a really interesting crossover.”

AquaHacking invites interested students, academics, all levels of government, and the private sector — as well as watershed region community members — to reach out to them for more information on solving their local freshwater issues.