Hacking for solutions to California's water challenges

September 20, 2018

BIDS and UC Berkeley’s Division of Data Sciences – in collaboration with the West Big Data Innovation Hub, the California Government Operations Agency, and California State Water Resources Control Board – hosted the California Water Data Hackathon last week, where over 50 participants gathered to find more effective ways to solve California’s drinking water crisis. To facilitate collaborative efforts, participants were able to use newly open data resources, algal blooms datasets and river discharge and water quality data.

BIDS-LBNL Data Science Fellow Zexuan Xu and BIDS Senior Fellow Laurel Larsen helped to design the hackathon. Both are actively involved in hydrology-related research projects seeking solutions to water quality issues. “Droughts and other disruptions in water supply and contamination in water quality can limit or eliminate access to safe drinking water for days, months, or years,” said Xu. “All the topics that the hackathon participants will address are currently open questions. If they come up with interesting questions and/or solutions, we will deliver their interests to the state agencies, and encourage them to continue the research.”

Hackathon opening panel
Opening panel members 
Rafael Maestu, Chief Data Scientist, California State Water Resources Control Board; 
Angelica Quirarte, Assistant Secretary for Digital Engagement, California Government Operations Agency; 
Zexuan Xu, Postdoctoral Fellow, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Berkeley Institute of Data Science; 
Laurel Larsen, Associate Professor of Earth Systems Science, UC Berkeley; and 
Greg Gearheart, Deputy Director, Office of Information Management and Analysis, California State Water Resources Control Board.


The research matters. Currently, 360,000 Californians have unsafe drinking water, and data scientists are gathering to contribute to the combined efforts of several statewide initiatives and special events this month.

The hackathon was just one of a series of events and community-led activities taking place as part of the 2018 California Safe Drinking Water Data Challenge (June 26 - October 1, 2018) – which also included the Global Climate Action Summit held in San Francisco on September 12-14 – that will culminate in a Summit and Award Ceremony in Los Angeles on October 18, where the Water Data Challenge teams and partner organizations will be recognized in an awards ceremony.

Hackathon participants were invited to participate in teams addressing specific problems and challenges:

  • Improving water quality reporting: This group is looking for ways to design more effective data collection and analysis to address the high level of discrepancies in public water quality reporting.
  • Improved drinking water quality standards: This group is using data to visualize more effective water quality standards and monitoring systems, as well as way to communicate standards and other related risk information so that an informed public can take more effective action.
  • Identifying severe drought & contaminated regions: This team is using environmental data to evaluate the availability and quality of California water resources.
  • Evaluating freshwater harmful algal blooms: This team is examining the role of freshwater harmful algal blooms in California’s water crisis.
  • Understanding water contamination: This team is working to identify the impacts of land use and land cover change - e.g. from forests to agricultural and urbanized area - on groundwater quality.
  • Investigating population and water distribution: This team is investigating the population distribution of people without safe drink water.

The challenge of gathering such a diverse group of participants – from undergraduates to postdocs, from programming beginners to experts, from academia to industry – and enabling them to work in concert toward a common goal that reaches across disciplines is a challenging undertaking, one that BIDS specializes in.

As a world-class research institute at the leading edge of interdisciplinary data science and data-intensive research, BIDS has hosted many of the world’s experts in statistics, machine learning, research software, and visualization, as they apply across a wide array of academic disciplines. As so many fields of research become more data-driven, data science applications become an increasingly cross-disciplinary effort.

On Saturday morning, hackathon participants were treated to a “fireside chat“ interview with special guest Tom Kalil – Chief Innovation Officer for Schmidt Futures – who spoke with Meredith Lee (Executive Director, West Big Data Innovation Hub) and David Culler (BIDS Senior Fellow, and Interim Dean of Data Sciences at UC Berkeley). During the interview, Mr. Kalil focused on the importance of unlocking “the economic and societal and civic value associated with data sciences” and encouraged collaboration, open access and open data in driving continuous improvements in technology and innovation toward positive social impact and environmental justice.

Hackathon projects will be invited to continue as part of the new Data Collaboratives program, being offered through UC Berkeley’s Division of Data Science, which will encourage student-driven innovation and provide opportunities for growth into broader collaborations (with government and community organizations, and business partners) that leverage data-intensive research to address complex social issues, including safe drinking water access, disaster recovery and affordable housing.


Related Articles

Data Collaboratives: A conversation with Tom Kalil of Schmidt Futures
January 6, 2019 | Berkeley Division of Data Sciences News

Pipeline to Innovation: Insights from a Waterside Chat with Tom Kalil 
September 20, 2018 | Rebecca Harcourt | Berkeley Division of Data Sciences News

Data Collaboratives: Moving from Knowledge to Action
September 10, 2018 | Berkeley Division of Data Sciences News

Berkeley Lab, BIDS Take on Big Data 
August 30, 2018 | Linda Vu | Berkeley Lab Computing Sciences News

Addressing California’s water challenges and energy issues 
July 13, 2018 | Zexuan Xu | Data Science Insights


(Page updated January 8, 2019)


Featured Fellows

Zexuan Xu

Hydrology, CERC-WET, Berkeley Lab

Laurel Larsen

Geography, UC Berkeley
Faculty Affiliate

David Culler

BIDS Alum – Senior Fellow