AquaHacking Reflections

We didn’t think we’d start a company. But hey, here we are.

I started the AquaHacking challenge by putting the word out among friends to see who wanted to get together and form a team. We had a few sessions in May where we brainstormed problems and ideas, and settled on one that we all liked and that we thought was feasible: a water quality testing kit focused on the presence of algae toxins. The need for the product came mostly from Jill and Nicole. Jill is an expert on cyanobacteria monitoring and has numerous clients, from cottager associations to water utilities, who want to know some basic information about their water quality. Nicole is very familiar with different testing techniques and what kind of data scientists use to make decisions about algae monitoring. We saw a gap in the market: for average people, it’s really hard to determine whether our water is safe to swim. There are tests that people can buy, but they are expensive, difficult to perform and impossible to interpret. The monitoring methods available are really only available to the scientific and institutional community – not your average citizen. At the same time, scientists need way more data on algae blooms to monitor and predict their growth – so they would benefit by having an army of citizens out there collecting data.

Then our interaction designer, Peter, got us really excited about microfluidics – which he learned about through “lab-on-a-chip” articles. Lab-on-a-chip really revolutionized how blood diagnostic testing was done, because now a small chip can give you your test results in minutes at point-of-care. We looked at whether this could be applied to water quality, and could see no reason why not, so we decided that would be our product idea.

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Nicole with microfluidic device samples

We pitched the idea of CyanoSleuth – a citizen science water quality testing device and associated app – at the semi-finals in June. We didn’t expect much – we figured there would be teams who were much further along with product development or their business case. We were shocked and excited to be named one of the five finalists!

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At the June 21 Semi Finals

But also terrified… because now we had to do the hard work of figuring out how to advance this product, when none of us had any experience with product development or running a business.

Some of the main lessons we learned in product development over the summer are:

  1. We can learn anything we need to know – so don’t fret about the unknowns, just try to identify them.
  2. Someone’s done this already – find them and ask them questions!
  3. Partnerships and collaborations are key.
  4. Listen to the user to guide the product.
  5. Good people will come if the idea is strong – like our developer who joined us after the semi-finals!

After months of development work, we had a design for our test kit, a plan to manufacture it, collaborations with scientific product developers, and an app prototype with functioning colour-recognition. We went into the finals with a lot of confidence in our product, but sadly came in last place.

We are continuing on though – and likely would not be in this place if it weren’t for the competition. We are creating and refining our app. Over the winter, we will develop a beta version of the microfluidics testing device, and test that out with some initial beta users in summer 2018. We are still a long way from selling this device, and still need to learn a lot, like operating a business and working with manufacturers!!

We got this far, so why not keep going?

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If you are interested in learning more or getting involved, you can email me at Sylvie@CyanoSleuth.com, and check out our product primer here.

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The Channel Beneath High Park

For an assignment for my class on water resource systems modelling, we were asked to go somewhere, observe flow, and write about it. I was advised to go check out a tiny pipe with a crazy back story in High Park.

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Stormwater Pond at High Park

At the Spring Creek footbridge adjacent to the off-leash dog park, two streams of water join and create one stream. One stream is from a stormwater management pond. Stormwater ponds are receivers of overland flow and storm sewers within a “sewershed” for an urbanized area. The land upstream of these stormwater ponds, so to the north, east and west of High Park, drains into this stormwater pond. The water colour in the pond is black/grey, and the surface of the pond contains silver strands that vary between being filamentous, streaks and blobs. The silver streaks may be organic (from algae) or from gasoline and oil from our roadways. The ponds have a strong sulphur smell, and that smell of sulphur permeates throughout the northern end of the park. There were a few items of garbage present in the pond when I visited, though none of it near to where people frequent. Sanitary sewers that overflow into the combined sewer system during rain events may contribute human waste to this pond, leading to the sulphurous odour when stagnant.

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Outlet of stormwater pond (right) and outlet of Laurentian Channel (left)

The other stream of water is sourced from groundwater. Groundwater is higher in minerals and metals than surface water, due to the contact between soil and rocks that contain these minerals. The red staining from the oxidation of iron is evidence of water with high mineral content, and so this is why I assume that this source of water is groundwater. Based on conversations with Helen Mills (from Lost Rivers TO), and searching on the internet for discussion, I find that my observations are correct. Even more interestingly, this is the outlet of an underground creek, called the Laurentian Channel, that is 110 km long and 30 km wide at some points[1]. In 2003, there were construction workers present for some work on the ponds, and while draining the ponds, they found several capped wells, which indicated this natural spring. They also dug a borehole to investigate this spring, and a geyser erupted from that borehole, indicating the huge pressure the confined aquifer must be under.

I hope you enjoyed this random water post. I was glad to have the push needed to go out and explore new and cool aspects of our water systems.

[1] High Park Nature Newsletter, November 2012, written by Karen Klaire Koski. http://www.gordperks.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/High-Parks-Hidden-Waters.pdf

WATER CONNECTIONS – FROM CANADA TO THE PHILIPPINES

Just re-posting a blog I wrote for Waterlution! Original post is here.


I’ve known Maricor for more than 10 years. We were in the same class in environmental engineering and both stayed in the Waterloo area after graduation. She has completed a master’s degree and is nearing the finishing line for her PhD, where she’s specializing in drinking water treatment technologies for emerging contaminants. I’ve been working in environmental consulting and recently went back to grad school for research in stormwater management. We have a lot in common – mostly our passion for water and making that a reality in all of our projects.

I’ve learned a lot from her, and she is someone I regularly go to or advice. I asked her about grad school – she said go for it – and provided me with templates for reference letters and scholarship opportunities. Now I’m doing grad school and loving it. She recommended Waterlution’s Water Innovation Labs (WILs), and so I went to India for that. I even picked one of my post-WIL travel buddies on her advice!

When Maricor and I were getting together for another catch-up, she told me the most amazing story about her latest water initiative. She told it to me in a very humble way – as is her style – and I was so blown away that I just had to share it – and that’s what this post is about.

Now I’m going to bring Maricor in to have her tell that story.

 

Sylvie: Tell me about your experience at your first WIL in Kananaskis in 2013. How did that experience lead you to understanding your connection with water?

Maricor: I was finishing up my Master’s thesis (focusing on water research) when I came across the WIL Kananaskis web application and thought that a free trip to Banff would be a great way to end the grueling stress of thesis-writing. On Day 1, we were asked to gather around in circles and share our thoughts about our personal motivation of attending this workshop. I listened to a number of responses and was really touched by most of the answers. I obviously felt like such an idiot. For one, I thought water research was just a solid career choice and it did not have any relation to how I feel about water. So I was emotional and told everyone that I grew up in the Philippines, home to >7,000 islands but never felt the connection to water up until I heard everyone else’s responses. By the end of WIL 2013, I decided to dedicate my entire career to water research – not because it was a good career choice – but because water has such an important value to me and is worth protecting.

 

 

Sylvie: Tell me about your background in the Philippines & why you want to give back to where you came from.

Maricor: I was born and raised in the Philippines. My family moved to Canada when I was 18 in search of better opportunities. In the small Philippine town where I grew up (about 80,000 people), water issues were really not a priority for us since there were a lot more socioeconomic aspects to worry about. I came to the realization that no one really talked about major water issues, or asked themselves “Is there something we can do to protect our drinking water?” when there were so many other problems taking precedence.

 

 

Sylvie: Tell me about the scholarship you set up at your former school in the Philippines. Why did you want to do this? What are the questions that you asked?

Maricor: I started my PhD four months after I attended the WIL Kananaskis. I’ve had many dreams and visions that I want to put in place in my hometown since WIL. Maybe someday, I will go back and conduct a research project in the town I grew up or encourage the residents to just talk about water. But I really couldn’t think of any concrete plans. I was very fortunate to have received numerous scholarships during my PhD that helped with my grad school life substantially. So, I decided to pay it forward by sponsoring a scholarship essay competition that will hopefully encourage young minds to establish their connection with water – an opportunity that I did not have while I was there. It would also be a chance for me to learn about the watershed there. We called it “The Future of Negros Water Scholarship Competition”. “Negros” is the name of a Philippine island where my hometown, Victorias City, is situated.

Sylvie: What did you learn from the respondents about the island where you grew up?

Maricor: I was impressed by their responses – I definitely didn’t think the same way they did when I was their age (16 years old). Population growth, urbanization and the lack of water policies were considered the major drivers of the water quality issues in the watershed. All the entries definitely recognized the need for government involvement in providing access to clean and safe drinking water. At the moment, there are no watershed programs currently in place on the island.

I asked really broad questions about the watershed and clean drinking water. The questions were maybe a little bit long for a high-school essay competition – I will keep them shorter and more direct for the next scholarship round.

I will sponsor a second round of scholarship at the end of this year. A few family members I spoke to about this are already planning to contribute to the award. I am so excited.

 

 

Sylvie: Who did you award the scholarship to and what will they be doing with the funds?

Maricor: The recipients of this scholarship were even more deserving of recognition than I initially thought, as they not only demonstrated hard work and deep thinking, but they did so in the face of significant personal adversity as well. The funds will hopefully help all the winners with their university education expenses.

 

Sylvie: Do you have any final words on how to foster connections to water?

Maricor:  Start the conversation, talk about water, and inspire young minds as early as possible!

 

by Sylvie Spraakman and Maricor Arlos

Bios: Sylvie Spraakman is an EIT working on researching & implementing low impact development for stormwater management systems, and Maricor Arlos is a PhD candidate studying how changes to wastewater treatment technologies can affect emerging contaminants. They both love volunteering with community, environmental & political initiatives, and being subservient to their cat masters.

Greening Exhibition Place

I recently participated in WEAO’s 9th Annual Student Design Competition. The challenge was to come up with innovative stormwater management solutions for Exhibition Place, Toronto. “The Ex”, as it’s known locally, is a bunch of parking lots and buildings that house major events that attract thousand of visitors annually.

The problems are:

  • poor water quality of stormwater runoff – because of all of the cars and asphalt and no pre-treatment before the runoff enters Lake Ontario
  • urban heat island effect – hot days then feel VERY hot
  • flooding on Lakeshore Boulevard, which is south & downstream of Exhibition Place. The sewers on Lakeshore Boulevard receive runoff from Exhibition Place and the Gardiner Highway, so two very impervious areas that would have high peak runoff converge underneath Lakeshore
  • the systems underground are old and not necessarily “designed” for conditions like peak flow
  • the subsurface soils are mainly fill (because this area was Lake Ontario before it was filled in!) and likely contaminated
  • the groundwater level is probably pretty close to the surface, since Exhibition Place is so close to Lake Ontario – which means infiltration won’t be so easy
  • they need all the parking spots they can get!

Seven student teams from across Ontario went forth on solving this problem for the City of Toronto (our “client”). Our designs all implemented green infrastructure solutions – like bioretention, permeable pavement, green roofs, surface and subsurface detention (like cisterns for catching roof runoff). We showed that it was possible to reduce peak flow and runoff volumes from Exhibition Place by retaining it first, releasing it slowly. We also showed that we could improve water quality by filtering it, and reduce urban heat island effect by having lots of plants around.

The price tag was super high though! The range of estimates that our student teams came up with was between $5- and $12-million!!!

I’m left wondering if the City of Toronto will implement something as ambitious as this. I’ve seen many pilot projects get built to demonstrate the effectiveness of low impact development (LID) technologies – but it seems that there is some conservative faction that says “we don’t know enough, need more data, more time, more regulations” – and so we don’t build LIDs out at the large scale. Anecdotally, we’re often told that LIDs don’t work in the winter, or don’t work in urban areas, or need the best infiltrating soils possible to be effective. That line of thinking holds us back, especially when there are countless studies that prove the opposite.

What we proposed in the Student Design Competition is far more than a “pilot project”. I think it’s the right time to move beyond pilot projects for LIDs though. We have a lot of them already, we need to move into “normalizing” LIDs. That means including them in City development plans, ensuring that municipal operations staff (those folks who make sure streets are swept and sidewalk trees don’t fall on people) know what they are and how to maintain them. LIDs don’t work everywhere – I don’t think they are a be-all-end-all solution. But to adapt to climate change and reduce environmental and societal impacts of flooding, we need to normalize some new solutions that we know work.

I hope that Exhibition Place takes on the ambitious project of a green infrastructure re-design! And what better place for it? There are many green initiatives there already, like LEED buildings, waste management plans, and solar panels on roofs. The next step to normalizing LIDs is to implement them site-wide at a place visited by thousands of people every year – Exhibition Place.