18 November 2010

GWater, part 1: The Idea

OK, so I finally feel comfortable enough to talk about some ideas that have been sitting around in my archives for a while, on which I've been procrastinating far too long, but that have occupied my thoughts and ambitions and work for (literally) years. I don't know why I've not yet put these ideas out to a wider audience already. As it is now, just some friends, colleagues and co-workers have seen them, but no one person has seen it all, and for that matter it's probably not all there will be. Let's just see where the train of thought goes...

So, I'll start with something that I think was a basic idea that I've held on to a long time and not seen much progress toward elsewhere, though there are some positive signs that I'll explore later (part 2). For now, it's enough just to get it out. If you really like it, then let's talk about it. If I didn't want to explore it more, carry it farther, make something of it, then I wouldn't be putting it out here.

A little over two years ago, around the time that I left NASA-GSFC and moved my family and self to Arizona to pursue a project there, I had already formulated the idea for what I called "Google Water." At the time, I thought "Well, there is Google Mail and Earth and News and Maps and Blogs (which is Blogger, a.k.a. BlogSpot) and all kinds of stuff, why not leverage those to a useful purpose in their combination?" And, at the time, Google's philanthropic arm (Google.org) was running a contest to celebrate Google's 10th anniversary, called "Project 10 to the 100" because that's a googol (partial inspiration for Google's name). They planned to distribute $10M among five worthy projects. So the funding-contest was certainly attractive, and I approached it with a foundation in basic water science and the intent to leverage things that Google was already doing, and yet still sticking to the basic philosophy of what Google does best (gather and index and rank and show tons of information in a way that the user can better understand and use). As the site stated, they were looking for ideas in numerous categories, to many of which I thought that "Google Water" would apply and give the project proposal an edge. All of that, together, gave me good reason to put words to paper in fleshing out my idea. The following is the text of my original entry, according to the input form instructions, submitted in October 2008 and reproduced here with a few brief notes for explanation.
Idea name (50 chars)
Google Water

[Note: I was not allowed to enter a URL in the name, but water.google.com would have been the obvious website for the project. Since that didn't happen, I've shortened the name of my idea to GWater--it could stand for "Global Water" now, right?]

Idea in one sentence (150 chars)
Google and IBM partner with government and academics for informatics-based education in water resources and emerging solutions to global water crises.

[Note: at the time I was talking with a leader at IBM's Big Green Innovations about working together on the technology basis for ideas like these.]

Idea in more depth (300 words)
In the formulation of its Millennium Development Goals, the UN has indicated that nearly one-sixth of the global population lives with inadequate water resource provisions, and more than twice that number suffer from inadequate sanitation and sewage treatment facilities. We must also recognize that no-one is immune from inadequate governance in water resource management and the mistreatment of natural resources with pollution discharges and increasing numbers of contaminants from industry, agriculture, and public works. Researchers have identified 260 international river basins, watersheds shared by two or more countries, around the world. With global climate change, the potential for diminished water supplies from surface and groundwater sources is increasing in many regions. Overallocation and overdrafts of these traditional sources challenge the stability of societies, especially where the natural and political climate for societal sustainability is already marginal and population and urban growth remain large. If any solution can be found to these problems, part of the answer lies in the adequate discovery and provision of knowledge for informed regional and international discussion over proper and sustainable uses of our already scarce water resources. With such information we may track the environmental and societal impacts of global climate change and predict future impacts with some skill. We propose a leveraged application of Google-based expertise in knowledge discovery and information management, along with academic partners around the world and industry partners in information services and technology such as IBM, to the collection and provision of global information on hydrology- and water-related issues for the benefit of scientists, researchers, educators, and decision-makers around the globe. Such information can support the efforts of innumerable international and government resource and aid agencies, community- and faith-based charitable organizations, and the responses of states to crisis situations and natural disasters in both neighboring regions and around the world.

Problem or issue addressed (150 words)
We propose a comprehensive, information-based approach to education of the public and decision-makers on issues and problems in regional and global freshwater resources. These problems include, but are not limited to: surface and groundwater scarcity; equitable access to water under constraints of shared resource development; gender-based inequities in traditional societies; impacts of poor sanitation and natural and anthropogenic influences on water quality and, thus, on public health; the potential for sustainable development in areas with underutilized or overallocated water supplies. Such problems extend to political relations between countries and regions: of 260 international river basins identified throughout the world, fewer than 10% have international treaties, agreements or compacts on sharing of the water resources and related information on those rivers. Transparency in shared information seems one of the keys to successful negotiation of reasonable allocation and use, especially in areas of water resource scarcity such as arid and semi-arid regions.

Who would benefit the most, and how? (150 words)
The population of the global hydrosphere, almost 7B at the time of this proposal, would benefit from a centralized educational resource on water-related issues from local to global scales. Many would feel some measure of security knowing the quality and source of their water supply, and who might help them make the best of available resources. About 1.5B people suffer from inadequate water supplies, and more than 2.5B suffer from poor public health due to inadequate sanitation facilities. Commercial interests would benefit knowing the availability and reasonable use of water resources throughout the developed and developing world. All sectors would benefit from comprehensive information sharing on the allocations, uses, and impairment of available water resources. Those in need of specific resources, e.g. groundwater pumps or a water treatment program, could benefit directly from the promotion of micro-loan and larger funding programs and available links to engineering and construction solution providers.

Initial steps required to get this idea off the ground (150 words)
We propose to develop a team of subject matter authorities and experts in hydrologic sciences, hydraulics, engineering, ecology, knowledge management, information services and technology, stakeholder engagement, resource evaluation, engagement with government agencies and media interests in the topic, and international cultural relations. We will leverage the role of a neutral party in convincing otherwise reticent groups and governments to share information in a way designed to help, rather than subvert, the process of international relations and responsible resource sharing and allocation. This team, through a central management structure that identifies the topic areas of most general and specific need in the target audience, would have the power to create a centralized web site, mine the available information resources (with cross-language and cross-cultural capability, quite possibly the greatest obstacles), and provide the information freely to any and all potential users for national and international transparency and informed decision-making in water-related issues.

The optimal outcome, and how it would be measured (150 words)
The optimal outcome from such effort at information gathering and dissemination is the preservation of quality of life in developed countries, and of life itself in many parts of the developing world. If even one life is saved because the sharing of information and enhanced transparency of regional and government policies and activities leads to better management of water resources and quality, then all of the funding provided to such an effort is justified. In more quantitative terms, Google and its partners in industry and academia hold the opportunity to affect directly the lives of billions around the globe and to have that contribution demonstrated in measurable progress toward the UN Millennium Development Goals. Engagement of numerous Google components (Maps, Earth, News, Scholar, Code, etc.) will reflect a solid commitment toward global social responsibility and the sustainability of one of our most precious natural resources in the service of humanity.

Who should do this (50 words)
A cross-disciplinary organization that is already oriented on research and information service in Earth and environmental sciences and that promotes and maintains ties to academia, government agencies and NGOs, such as the Arizona Water Institute and its affiliated SAHRA National Science Foundation S&T Center.
You see there that I was partial to my affiliation at the time, but that the idea would have required cooperation over a much wider base of supporting institutions, organizations, agencies, and governments. Other than my overestimate of the global population at the moment (for dramatic effect), this was the only part of the proposed idea on which I felt I was caught short.

I figured, at the time, that I could depend on the people around me, and on the very few colleagues closest to me who had seen or talked with me about the idea. I was afraid, however, of letting the idea out in the open, of getting laughed at, of being considered naive for the idealism of the concept. I wasn't afraid of losing the idea to someone else, that it might get picked up elsewhere and someone would run with it, but without me. First of all, I thought it up; no-one else knows more about the underlying idea and formulation than me, so carrying the idea forward in planning and logistics probably would not have come very easily to someone else without getting my input somewhere near the beginning anyway. Secondly, there are other ideas, even better ideas, for me to pursue in my work. An idea like this, barely two pages of prose, is just a slough off the iceberg.

But most of all, I was afraid of being dismissed outright by those who felt that I just wouldn't be able to make it work, that I could talk up the idea but wouldn't be able to carry it through because I didn't have the skills to build a team, to leverage my background, to make the connections. Or, the worst of all, simply because I don't have those magic initials (Ph.D.) after my name, and therefore I'm not worth your listening and reading time.

The time for being scared of all of that is passed now. So I don't have the magic initials--big deal. I have initials for other things, two graduate degrees that demonstrate my educational background, time in court as an expert witness, a CV that shows my experience, a passion for the work and the subject, some talent for finding and researching and crafting ideas that can work, and that can make a difference.

I'm finally, cautiously, but finally breaking out of a shell here. I hope it resonates well with my readers, however many there may be. There's a lot more to come...


Todd Jarvis said...

I also have listened to, met, and discussed *big* water ideas with Peter Williams of IBM. You found the right partner. I look forward to GW, part 2.

M. Garcia said...

Thanks, Todd! That is the guy--very well-informed, very progressive. Part 2 is in progress.

timmcgivern said...

An idea well worth a pursuit. I imagine there would be some powerful hurdles to jump. Looking forward to part 2!

M. Garcia said...

Indeed, Tim. Your suggestions on what those hurdles might be are very much welcome as I work on the follow-up posts. Part 2 will actually be a small step back from what I originally intended, to address conceptual issues. Part 3 will then show and explain some examples from my work over time. You (and all readers) are welcome to contribute to what I will now consider Part 4 with your ideas on possible hurdles (and potential ways to overcome those) to help make my commentary more informed. I certainly recognize that my approach as a scientist is not the only way to go about it...