Why it’s time to democratize water data

By Will Sarni, originally posted on August 2, 2016


Imagine if everyone had access to water quantity and quality data on a real-time or near-real-time basis.

I believe we are getting closer as a result of access to technology and catalyzed by a pressing need from the private and public sectors, along with civil society.

The “democratization of water data” is not only timely but essential if we are to move from 19th century water policies and 20th century infrastructure to 21st century solutions.

We are still challenged to deliver safe drinking water to everyone. A few statistics frame the challenge: globally, 884 million people worldwide don’t have regular access to safe drinking water; 2.4 billion people lack improved sanitation facilities resulting in about 842,000 deaths per year, of which 361,000 are children under age 5.

In the U.S., an estimated 1 million to 3 million people don’t have access to safe drinking water and almost 2,000 water systems (or about 6 million people) were tested for lead concentrations exceeding U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards, according to USA Today.

What would democratizing water quantity and quality data facilitate? The potential to provide the following benefits.

  • Public sector with integrated (local, state, regional and national scale) water data to drive innovative public policy decisions.
  • Civil society (homeowners and anyone with a mobile phone) with the ability to access data without the need to rely upon public sector databases, utilities and agencies.
  • Investors with access to data to make more informed decisions (imagine having the same confidence in water data that we do with financial data?) on investments in 21 st century infrastructure — “smarter” centralized, distributed and decentralized systems.
  • Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with water data so they are better equipped to drive collective action initiatives within watersheds, regions and nationally.
  • Opportunities for cross industry collaboration on addressing the energy-water-food nexus challenges.
  • Entrepreneurs with the ability to understand market failures and business opportunities in areas such as treatment technologies and the Internet of Things (IoT).

How do we get there? Several trends are driving this move towards democratizing access to water data.

The first and most obvious is the accelerating adoption of smart phones and access to the internet. To illustrate these trends, in Africa, by 2019, there will be 930 million people with cell phones, of which three-quarters will have internet access and 50 percent of the world’s population will be online by 2018.

The second trend that is emerging in the U.S. is a recognition that the public sector must do better to provide access to local, state and federal databases. The recent White House Moonshot for water and roundtable discussions on open access to data illustrate this trend.

These first two trends are, in turn, mobilizing entrepreneurs (in particular those outside of the water sector) to develop innovative technology solutions to address water quantify and quality. Water technology hubs and accelerators such as ImagineH2O, the Global Water Center, WaterStart and WaterTAP are bringing entrepreneurs together to address water challenges.

Finally, we need to more actively engage civil society through education and awareness of the challenges we face in ensuring adequate water for economic development, business growth and social and ecosystem well-being.

All of these trends will move us towards the goal of universal access to water data to accelerate solutions to universal and equitable access to water.

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