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Interdisciplinary team, led by Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan, creates new software to support surface water monitoring and modelling

Monday, November 5, 2018

Studying how human activities and naturally occurring phenomena have an impact on the environment is critical for effective management. Environmental monitoring and modelling are two fundamental practices to help in understanding, predicting and effectively managing these activities and impacts.

photo of Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan

Distinguished Professor Emeritus Don Cowan, a member of the Water Institute, has developed a new environmental platform designed to support monitoring and modelling of aspects of surface water. Known as iEnvironment++, the platform integrates many types of data, including those used to characterize water such as chemistry, volume and biota along with data to predict or understand water environments such as geology, weather, geomorphology, habitat conditions and various stressors such as land use and permeability. This software platform contains both recent and historical data, with records going as far back as 1970. 

iEnvironment++ is the result of over 30 years of research into data models for storing and accessing environmental data,” said Cowan. “We hope that his approach will be adopted as a model and refined to support ongoing environmental research.”

iEnvironment++ is a common data platform where data can be stored and shared among scientists and engineers, who are undertaking environmental monitoring and modelling. It provides a tool to enable historical data, often sitting in inaccessible locations such as desk drawers and old computers, to be digitally archived and made available to future researchers.

In Canada there is shared responsibility for managing water, and the data used to assess and understand its condition. Access to this data by researchers across organizations — such as governments, water management authorities, non-governmental organizations, academics and consultants — is a challenge that has greatly affected the ability to move the water agenda forward. Cowan hopes iEnvironment++ will help to reduce the time researchers spend attempting to obtain relevant environmental data thereby providing more time to focus on data analysis.

“The current iEnvironment++ project is working with over 50 partners in universities and colleges, water management authorities, NGOs, governments at all levels, and industry to support advances in environmental research and practices related to surface water,” said Cowan. “The group managing the development of iEnvironment++ is constantly seeking and adding new partners, and frequently augmenting and improving the technology and processes behind the integration, sharing and use of environmental data.”

Cowan and his team recently received funding for iEnvironment++ through CANARIE’s Research Software funding call. The funds will be used for additional software development of the iEnvironment++ data platform based on input from various users.

Currently, the group includes Water Institute members from three University of Waterloo departments, including Don Cowan, Bruce MacVicar from Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Stephen Murphy and Simon Courtenay from Environment, Resources and Sustainability. Cowan believes interdisciplinary teams are critical when it comes to solving some of the water problems we’re currently facing.

“We have been working on environmental problems for years, typically in a silo-based approach,” said Cowan. “Cross-silo datasets must be accessible to researchers so that complex data relationships can be better understood and managed. Providing these datasets in a way that facilitates this interdisciplinary analysis is a main motivator for the iEnvironment++ approach.”

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