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Icons of Progress

Smarter Water Management


Like other bodies of water around the world, Ireland’s Galway Bay is a fragile ecosystem of many interconnected parts. And its health and sustainability are dependent on understanding an abundance of marine data that, until recently, could only be collected and analyzed by going out to sea.

In 2008, IBM and the Marine Institute embarked on a cooperative strategy to help develop a prototype real-time information system to help monitor pollution levels and other environmental conditions in Galway Bay. Local agencies had been hampered by a lack of useful data about the waterway. Existing data on coastal conditions, water quality, fish populations and flooding was scattered among many different sources, and therefore not easily accessible.

The SmartBay project, initiated by the Marine Institute Ireland (MII), sought to establish a research, test and demonstration platform for new environmental technologies in Galway Bay—paving the way to commercialization and the development of new markets for Irish-based companies. The Institute, working in close partnership with IBM, developed a pilot information system to feed environmental data into a data warehouse, where it was processed, analyzed and displayed in new ways. This created a solution that could turn volumes of raw data into intelligent information through a network of sensor-equipped buoys and analytics, and then deliver it to a diverse set of stakeholders on the bay.

The project was a first of its kind in its use of large-scale data collection and distributed intelligence in tackling the critical issues that bodies of water face. And it paved the way for more informed, environmentally sound management of Galway Bay and other water resources around the world.

The SmartBay pilot came under the Big Green Innovations initiative announced by IBM in October 2006 as part of its US$100 million investment in 10 new businesses generated by IBM ® InnovationJam ® —IBM’s online collaboration event. And with new innovations, such as sophisticated sensor networks, smart meters and analytics making it possible to monitor, measure and analyze entire water ecosystems in real time, IBM began to work with organizations around the world on a number of novel water-related projects.

For example, in 2007, IBM began a collaboration with the Beacon Institute on a technology-based observatory system to allow for minute-to-minute monitoring of New York’s Hudson River via an integrated network of sensors and robotics. The following year, IBM technology was used in the building of smarter levees in the Netherlands that could monitor changing flood conditions in response to growing concerns over climate change in the region and its potential impact on low-lying coastal regions.

By 2010, IBM was involved in several innovative water management projects around the world—from working with the Nature Conservancy on web-based tools for river basin management, to a “Smart Cape Cod” initiative which may include the use of advanced analytics to improve water quality and other natural resources on the Massachusetts peninsula.

Looking to expand its water management capabilities in different regions around the world, in 2008 IBM opened a Center of Excellence for Water Management in Dublin, Ireland, that brought together IBM’s consulting, technology and research expertise to address the region’s different environmental challenges in smart catchments and marine environments. One of the center’s first projects was the multi-year collaboration with the Marine Institute on SmartBay.

The concept behind the pilot was fairly simple: Use a series of radio-equipped “smart buoys” in the bay with sensors that could collect data on ocean conditions, weather and water quality. The buoys were fitted with sensors capable of measuring multiple parameters, including salinity, temperature, wave energy, tides and the behavior of various organisms in the bay, including fish and plant life. Clever stream-computing software—called IBM InfoSphere™ Streams—was also used to analyze complex acoustic data streams from marine mammals. Researchers and agencies could then access the data directly from a real-time sensor data warehouse via a cloud-based information portal.

Hazards like pollution spills cause damage more quickly in confined waters like Galway Bay than in the open sea; therefore, scientists and environmental agencies need to access and decipher information about the bay quickly and react to any signs of distress without delay. On July 14, 2008, when the first of a series of sophisticated sensor-laden yellow buoys were deployed in Galway Bay, researchers were able to monitor a wide range of ocean conditions on a twenty-four hour basis, and respond quickly to the critical challenges on the bay.

Since the new system made it easy to combine data from the sensors with other online databases (such as geospatial information), new uses of the technology began to emerge. Researchers, tourism officials, harbormasters, fishermen and others joined in the brainstorming process, and the original vision of SmartBay quickly expanded far beyond its initial goal as simply a platform for testing environmental monitoring technologies.

For example, climate researchers, using sensors on land paired with sensors in the bay, could learn about the exchange of carbon dioxide across the air-sea interface. Marine biologists could use acoustic sensors deployed throughout the bay to assess marine mammal populations. Alternative energy developers could access real-time wave data and use it to determine the effectiveness of prototype wave-energy generators. The SmartBay pilot’s first phase, which was completed in 2009, opened up a wide range of possibilities for monitoring water conditions and providing an early warning system for pollution, the study of fish and shellfish stocks, the prediction of harmful algal blooms, monitoring wave characteristics for ocean energy engineering firms testing sustainable energy generators, and even the long-term effects of global climate change.

In 2010, the Irish government announced significant investments to expand the work the pilot started to establish SmartBay as a National Shared Marine Research, Test and Demonstration Platform through a dynamic partnership between academia, industry and government agencies.