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How the SOWC is revolutionizing the world of water


August 31, 2012
By Julie Fitz-Gerald

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The due diligence and red tape involved in drilling new wells can be a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process

The due diligence and red tape involved in drilling new wells can be a time-consuming and sometimes frustrating process. Imagine if that process was reduced to a few clicks of a button.

Environmental assessments, viability studies and ecotoxicological reports could literally be at your fingertips within the foreseeable future thanks to the Southwestern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC). The SOWC is a partnership made up of eight universities and more than 80 industry partners, including public- and private-sector groups, which is working to revolutionize the way water-related data is shared.

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IBM Canada has contributed $20 million to the project, providing hardware and software for the cutting-edge platform, which will facilitate research and technology development, testing, and demonstration in water. It’s a daunting task, and one that has never been attempted before in Canada, notes Geoff Riggs, business development executive of Smarter Cities and Water Initiatives for IBM Canada.

IBM has been involved with two similar projects – a marine application in Galway Bay, Ireland, and instrumenting sensors on the Hudson River in New York – but the SOWC is unique because of the sheer amount of information that must be integrated and the number of partners involved. “We’re talking about over 300 kilometres of watershed, which makes it much larger in physical scale [than Galway Bay], probably comparable to the Hudson River application, but with the number of partners involved here we’re talking about a lot more data. With eight universities and 80-plus industry partners, many of which are generating their own data, I believe this project is more complex than either of the previous ones mentioned,” explains Riggs.

Since the project was announced last August, SOWC partners have been busy analyzing their own individual data systems in an effort to aid in the integration. This has paved the way for the architecture and design of the new platform that will see the merger of dozens of varying data systems. “The analysis, the design and the requirements-gathering are really the core elements or milestones of the past 12 months and those are generally when there’s the most risk in a project, which is why so much time is allocated to it.”

The goal is to have the new streamlined platform up and running in the first quarter of 2013, which leaves only six months for the system to be installed. Riggs explains that the platform will likely be broken into nodes, allowing some nodes to come online before others. “Once the various nodes are plugged in, you’ll have miniature ‘centres of excellence,’ if you will, around the different focus areas, such as watersheds, waste water, ecotoxicology, drinking water, analytics and sensors. People will be able to go in and analyze the watershed from a different set of dimensions along those areas of focus and that in itself is a quantum leap in terms of the information that was previously available.”

Pooling such a vast array of data from numerous partners and universities onto one platform is expected to raise the level of efficiency for all water-related jobs. Researchers and scientists will no longer waste time grappling with incompatible systems of information and can therefore focus on their research. Municipalities will be able to better monitor water and waste systems, preventing occurrences of toxic sewage overflow and burst water mains.

Well drillers can also expect to benefit from SOWC’s platform in due course, when information about potential drilling sites, such as viability, possible environmental sensitivities or ecotoxicological issues, are made available. “As the number of possible well sites shrinks, I can imagine that [drillers] need to be more efficient in their process of sourcing and executing drilling and this is exactly the kind of thing that IBM excels at: efficiency. Efficiency of dissemination of information, collection of that information and turning it into formats available for a wide variety of people to use, including drillers.”

The SOWC will likely follow the trend of moving data and applications to the cloud, allowing users with Internet connectivity to access the information from a smartphone, tablet or laptop. “These kinds of business models will probably involve paying for some kind of subscription service, so that with your ID you can log in to various applications, or data stores as we call them, and then that data store might allow you to select different data sets so that you can do your own analytics or modelling of that data.”

By the end of this year, IBM Canada and the SOWC hope to have the systems integration platform completed, allowing partners in the consortium to plug into each other. The next step will be running a pilot project to prove the platform can pull in data from the institutions and universities involved. The results of the pilot project will then determine the next steps of integration.

The SOWC is an ambitious project, with the sheer enormity of it spawning global interest. Water industry players around the world are watching intently to see if the project’s lofty goals can be accomplished. “There’s no doubt that this is a daunting task, but I think it’s something that as a society we have to do. As a species, we’ve never shied away from these kinds of challenges. We are compelled to find new and innovative solutions through this new currency we’ve created, namely data. We’ll definitely innovate and produce something that hasn’t been done before.

It may not serve all people perfectly, in fact I’m sure it won’t, but it will be a bold, new and useful tool.”


Julie Fitz-Gerald is a freelance writer based in Uxbridge, Ont.