Akvo volunteer Winona Azure explores new developments in using Geographic Information Systems for water, and has links to some of the best stuff on the web

Top: Water poverty index, by country, in 2002. Courtesy UNEP/GRID-Arendal

Every water project starts with the question: where is the water? It could be deep in the ground, still in the sky, floating downstream with other competing interests wrestling to get rights to it, or it could be in a lake that might have eutrophication or pollution problems. In some cases, such as when the water is in the ground, it can take a lot of capital to research where the water is located. Is there one good resource to go to, a “Water Everything Encyclopedia” of sorts, to get accurate local water-related data?

In the old days, if you wanted to access water data, you had to contact a specific water organisation, for example a local research institute or government agency, which recorded its data in paper notebooks, filed away somewhere, with limited accessibility. But today, there are free satellite data, thousands of websites sharing maps and on-the-ground demographics, hydrogeological and water-related statistics, and exciting new technologies — GPS-enabled smart phones enabling real-time updates, for example.

Good maps with geographical water data are particularly important. Maps can tell you at a glance how much rainfall a region gets annually, where the stream, rivers, and dams are located near a project location, what watershed region a project belongs to (which tells you the direction of water flow), how much groundwater is available in your area (including historical data on withdrawals and recharges), if there is a risk of fluoride or arsenic in the groundwater, and where the soil conditions are suitable for well drilling.

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Probability of high fluoride content in groundwater, courtesy of IGRAC

GIS — Geographic Information Systems

A big problem, however, with making Geographic Information System maps in the recent past was affordability and layman’s ease-of-use of the available software. Conventional GIS software which can take data, analyze it and display it on map has cost anywhere from $500 to $15,000 (page 2), and generally has a steep learning curve. It’s complicated stuff, primarily because it can do so much. You can not only map geographical data, accurate to the longitudinal/latitudinal minute, but you can map any statistical data that exists and combine them in layers with your geographical data. And if that’s not impressive enough, you can also create models to forecast future water events and behavior based on past data. It’s pretty cool.

New tools — Google Fusion tables and Google Refine

The arrival of new tools, such as Google Fusion tables and Google Refine, are starting to make some of the GIS capabilities available for free. If you have data in a spreadsheet, you can then clean it up (so get messy data more consistent and organised) with Google Refine, import it into Google Fusion Tables, and then create up to 5 layers on an interactive map that you can easily embed into your website (they provide you with the code). Interactive means you can click on objects on the map and see concise information, like statistical data. Both tools have a public database of datasets, including some on water. Check out this example gallery of Fusion Tables.

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Example of an interactive Google Fusion Tables map of Total Annual Renewable Freshwater Supply, courtesy Pacific Institute. Click on the image to go to see the interactive map.

Of course, Google’s new software duo is fairly recent and free, so support is mostly through forums (Google does help you a bit through email), and the tutorials are challenging and time consuming. However, the fact that this software even exists is rather amazing. Hopefully, these tools will help people make at-a-glance maps of water and sanitation data, improving the quality of projects. And hopefully, in a few years’ time you can type “water” in a search field and pull up thousands of spreadsheets of everything you wanted to know about water.

FLOW and Water Point Mapper

Another exciting use of GIS software is displaying and analysing locations of things, such as water points. Examples are the Field Level Operation (FLOW) tool developed by Water for People, and Water Point Mapper, developed by WaterAid, with support from Google and UN Habitat. FLOW enables the collection of waterpoint data in the field using surveys run on smart phones, and can analyse and display the results. Water Point Mapper allows the use of spreadsheet data to be uploaded and displayed in a Google map. Both applications have more functionality than Fusion Tables, and offer greater refinement specifically in the water and sanitation field.

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Left: Field Level Operations Watch (FLOW), courtesy Water for People, right: Water Point Mapper, courtesy of WaterAid

Maps and digital atlases

Many organisations are starting to open up their datasets, by making them available as maps or digital atlases, such as the wonderful UNEP Africa Water Atlas (click here to download the PDF). Usually, these hidden treasures reside on the websites of the organisations, in their Data/Download section. I’d like to thank the spirit of Open Source technologies for spreading this sharing fever amongst us all. It is one of the goals for Akvopedia to make these resources discoverable, and in the near future we will dedicate a new “Geographical Resources” on Akvopedia to this, to keep you updated on the developments in this exciting space.

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Part of a map showing the annual water balance in Africa, from the UNEP Africa Water Atlas (click here to download the PDF). You can also buy the atlas in hardcopy.

Winona Azure is an Akvo volunteer, at the moment based in South Korea

Additional links