Anatomy of a Project for Sustainable Water

A little over three years ago, a group of faculty members at the University of Virginia were meeting weekly to see what they might do to encourage awareness of issues of global sustainability among their students. The faculty members represented seven different schools and brought diverse expertise to the subject. But how to start was the more elusive question.


The new Vice President for Research, Tom Skalak, challenged the group to devise a simulation model that could be played as a game with student participants. The faculty were a bit skeptical of the idea, but thought it through anyway. It was decided that the Chesapeake Bay would make a good subject for this simulation game. The Bay represents a complex socio-environmental system, the University is located in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, and the Bay is under considerable environmental stress.

Thus was born the UVA Bay Game®. Mustering support from an outside consultant with experience in modeling environmental systems, and with the help of a team of systems engineering graduate students, the initial version of the Bay Game was launched on Earth Day 2009 with over 130 U.Va. students playing the game in the roles of crop farmers, land developers, watermen, and assorted regulators.

Built in a scant four months, Bay Game 0.9 had its bugs and glitches, but it validated the idea that a well-designed simulation game would achieve the goal of bringing students to an understanding of how complex socio-environmental systems give rise to often unanticipated outcomes. These outcomes are not predictable and would be different with every game play as different assumptions and decisions would lead to very different outcomes — a learning experience.

Buoyed by the success of this the initial version, the faculty continued to work to improve the Bay Game adding more realism, richer graphics and data, and more role-types.   Now in its third major release, the Bay Game has been played by undergraduate and graduate students; actual regulators, farmers, and watermen; at the U.S. House of Representatives; and with great reception from businesses. Executives from IBM, GE, Dupont, Goldman Sachs, Coca-Cola, and Intel to name a few have played the Bay Game and derived insights leading to innovative solutions to the problem of water quality that their firms could act upon.

Building on this success, the University of Virginia team decided to investigate the underlying simulation model — highly aggregated in the Bay Game — and develop a much more detailed, simulation-only model. It became apparent that such a model would require enormous computing capacity to execute. That’s when we discovered IBM’s World Community Grid. U.Va. submitted a proposal to the World Community Grid and the proposal was accepted with two other proposals — both water-related.

The simulation model developed for execution on the World Community Grid is called Computing for Sustainable Water. Although this model was initially developed to study the Chesapeake Bay, it was designed for rapid deployment to other bodies of water. Computing for Sustainable Water was first announced to the public on April 19, 2012 . It runs on many of the more than 2-million computers volunteered by individuals in over 80 countries. Within one year, the results of more than 1.3 million separate simulation experiments will be gathered for analysis by the team of scientists at the University of Virginia.

This productive collaboration between the University of Virginia and IBM is an example of how to leverage the intellectual capital of both organizations toward solving one of the pressing problems of society. Even before all the results are in, we at U.Va. consider this a great success!

Gerard P. Learmonth is an associate professor of systems and information engineering at the University of Virginia

Related Resources:

Podcast with Dr. Learmonth about Computing for Sustainable Water project

Read the Press Release Announcing Computing for Sustainable Water project

IBM Smarter Water

More Blog Posts About World Community Grid:

Simpler is Better for Saving Our Waterways

Helping to Find Cures for Childhood Cancer

World Community Grid and the Greening of Information Technology

I’ll Take “Curing Malaria” for $1,000, Alex


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