/ Corporate / Using Every Drop of Information: the Open Water Data Initiative

Using Every Drop of Information: the Open Water Data Initiative

Matt Ball on March 3, 2015 - in Corporate, Water

“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink,” intoned the fictional Ancient Mariner as he looked hopelessly over an empty ocean.

More water data wouldn’t have helped in his case. In many cases, it does.

Today, as usable water is becoming a matter of increasing concern, the knowledge of water — knowledge based on data that is relevant, timely, and closely integrated — is more and more crucial for American communities, farms, and industries. The same basic data can serve to help us use our water resources more wisely, protect the natural environment, and respond to disasters.

In many places, America’s water resources are being stressed by increasing demand for water, decreasing water supplies, and reduced water quality. Large areas of the country are vulnerable to both droughts and floods. These stresses can be heightened by changes in land use, population growth, and climate change. Despite the substantial investments made by federal, state, and local governments and by regional water authorities, the nation does not have a comprehensive, integrated perspective of our varied water resources.

“Access to water data across states and agencies is difficult because it is collected by hundreds of organizations with no common infrastructure,” explained Alan Rea, a USGS hydrologist and data specialist.

Improving access to data and enabling open exchange of water information are vital actions required to identify existing water resources issues and develop sustainable future solutions, particularly in the face of climate change and extraordinary drought. To address this challenge, the Open Water Data Initiative is aimed at integrating fragmented water information that is already being collected by different agencies at several levels of government into a connected, national water data framework.

Caring and sharing

The concept of widely shared water information started a few years ago when the USGS, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and NOAA’s National Weather Service began a formal collaboration called Integrated Water Resources Science and Services to cultivate new approaches for improving their respective water missions.

Thinking farther afield and recognizing that effective water resource management in sectors ranging from energy and manufacturing to agriculture and drinking water works best with open access to water data and information, these groups, in concert with the Federal Geographic Data Committee and the Advisory Committee on Water Information, have agreed to collaborate in the Open Water Data Initiative (OWDI).

The multi-year OWDI pilot will build upon existing geospatial and observational data and tools to explore the feasibility and demonstrate the utility of integrated water data. The OWDI supports current trends in applications of big data while advancing the White House Open Data Policy (data.gov) by using recognized standards and web service technologies to spur innovation.

“We have to have a modern, consistent way to communicate water information and data,” said Jerad Bales, USGS Chief Scientist for Water. “What we are trying to do with the Open Water Data Initiative is to make the process of sharing water data easier and automated.”

Signs of success

One early, eye-catching example of OWDI success is the USGS interactive California Drought Visualization website, released in December 2014. This visualization tool is designed to provide the public with atlas-like, statewide coverage of the drought and a timeline of its impacts on water resources. In partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, options are being explored to expand the visualization to describe conditions across the lower Colorado River region.


The application accesses data from a variety of sources to create a useful “toolbox” for key stakeholders to use when making tough choices about water use, presenting them with valuable water data arranged in a storyline that conveys the complexity of Western water management in a more understandable and interactive format.

Two additional OWDI examples that are transitioning from concept to action are the National Flood Interoperability Experiment and a water quality incident response tool to address situations such as the 2014 Elk River chemical spill near Charleston, West Virginia.

While these examples illustrate how the data can be applied, the focus of the OWDI is not so much on specific applications but on the data behind them. The goal of the initiative is to make all water data from a wide variety of sources discoverable and readily accessible via web interfaces.

The anticipated outcome of the improved availability of real-time data is the distributed development of more complex automated data processing — for instance, models that automatically ingest updated data streams to produce modeled results in real time. A public “marketplace” is also envisioned where innovators inside and outside government can feature open source tools that are based on data liberated through the initiative.

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