When data met water in Kenya: IBM Service Corps

By | 3 minute read | January 14, 2021

The Upper Tana watershed in Kenya is a virtual gold mine for data. The possibilities to measure, register and store data on water quality and the effects of preservation activities are endless.  This data can guide professionals from the Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund in planning and reviewing interventions to secure water availability and quality for the four million Nairobi residents and for an additional five million people living in the watershed, including many farmers who depend on irrigation for their crops.   

The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund was established in 2015, by The Nature Conservancy with water fund partners. Through its work, thousands of farmers are engaging in soil and water-saving methods and sediment/pollutant reduction techniques, with a goal of reaching 50,000 farmers by the end of 2020.

Water Fund partners provide farmers with the skills, training and resources needed to conserve water, reduce soil runoff and improve productivity, resulting in increased water quality and quantity. Scientists estimate that millions more liters of water are available for Nairobi daily due to on-farm activities to retain soil and to reduce water extraction from the river.

The Nature Conservancy continuously measures the effects of various intervention projects. Data on water level, quality and temperature is regularly gathered manually and from the sensors and tracking devices in the Tana river and subsequently added into spreadsheets. Overall, the legacy process is manual and can be cumbersome, requiring staff to travel for hours to remote places along the Tana River to gather data.

Wanting to optimize their monitoring and reporting efforts, as well as to free up time to spend on the most effective interventions in the watershed, The Nature Conservancy turned to IBM: Could IBM assist with advice on a suitable and easy-to-use platform for data management and visualization that could handle large amounts of structured and unstructured data collected by tracking devices in the Tana River and by the Water Fund professionals on site?

Yes, we can! IBM forms a dedicated team

A hand-picked team of IBMers from across the globe and with diverse skills was formed. The plan was to work together in Nairobi and at the watershed during four weeks in June 2020, but COVID-19 changed that.

In the spring, we postponed the trip and pivoted to virtual collaboration. Several online workshops were conducted using Design Thinking and Agile methodologies, which facilitated the documentation of requirements and pain points as well as the clarification of technical dependencies. With these insights, the team’s experts on data science and AI crunched datasets provided by The Nature Conservancy and reviewed currently used technologies and available alternatives.

A data management platform for the future

In mid-September, the IBM Service Corps team delivered a data management platform prototype and a technical roadmap to The Nature Conservancy. The prototype, built on IBM Cloud Pak® for Data, showed how The Nature Conservancy can store, manage and manipulate real water level and quality data, as well as visualize it and perform analytics on it. Additionally, the AutoAI service available through IBM Cloud Pak for Data was used to demonstrate how models can be created to complement incomplete data sets (e.g. observations of past water conditions) or forecast future conditions.

IBM Cloud Pak for Data is accessible from anywhere over the IBM Cloud via the internet, while also guaranteeing secure access to data as well as generous integration possibilities to easily incorporate more data sources. The technical roadmap delivered by the IBM team suggests steps The Nature Conservancy can take to further open data sharing for water conservation, as well as other priorities as they emerge.

It has been an honor to contribute to this important cause, and an interesting journey to do it entirely virtual. Our story about water and data has only started. The IBM team still aspires to get to the Upper-Tana watershed and Nairobi to collaborate with the people who work tirelessly to preserve the environment there.

IBM Service Corps is an innovative social impact program that develops IBM leaders, while contributing IBM talent and technology to local communities and non-profit organizations looking to tackle challenging problems.

More reading on the topic:

  1. The Upper Tana-Nairobi Water Fund
  2. The Nature Conservancy
  3. IBM Service Corps
  4. IBM Cloud Pak for Data
  5. AutoAI
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