Campus News

UB teams advance to ErieHack semifinals

Ryan McPherson, UB's chief sustainability officer, speaks at the opening of the ErieHack quarterfinals. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

By DAVID J. HILL

Published April 7, 2017

“Imagine having access to local water quality, one text message away.”
Michael Brown, UB sophomore and co-founder
WaterWatcher

It’s destination Detroit for two UB students whose idea for a text message-based water quality data system won the top prize in the Buffalo region quarterfinals of ErieHack, a tech competition aimed at solving some of Lake Erie’s biggest challenges.

The project is called WaterWatcher, and it’s the brainchild of sophomores Michael Brown and Morgan Sansbury, who wanted to create a text-based service that could be accessible to all people, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

An overhead view of one of the team pitches during the ErieHack competition. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

The ErieHack Buffalo quarterfinals were held Tuesday evening in the Salvadore Lounge in Davis Hall, North Campus. Seven teams were given five minutes each to pitch their ideas to a panel of judges. Four teams were selected to advance to the ErieHack semifinals April 13 in Detroit, where they’ll compete against teams from Cleveland, Detroit, Erie, Toledo and Windsor for a chance to win one of four cash prizes, including the $50,000 grand prize.

“The ErieHack initiative provides students and professionals with opportunities to combine their own expertise with solid mentoring to create technologies with the potential to help revitalize Lake Erie’s environment and economy,” said Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer. UB Sustainability and UB’s Blackstone LaunchPad program, along with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, are the main sponsors of ErieHack Buffalo.

Michael Brown (left) and Morgan Sansbury of WaterWatcher hold the "big check" they received for winning first place in the ErieHack quarterfinals. With them are Hadar Borden (far left), program director of Blackstone Launchpad at UB, and Ryan McPherson, UB's chief sustainability officer. Photo: Nancy J. Parisi

As the winning entry in the quarterfinals, WaterWatcher’s Brown and Sansbury took home a $3,000 cash prize. Second place (Orbitist) won $2,000 and third place (WaterX) received $1,000. The fourth-place recipient was ExtremeComms Lab.

WaterWatcher will allow anyone with a cellphone to check water quality, report water problems to their municipal water authority, track the status of their report and use shared data on water provided by local environmental groups and community organizations.

“Imagine having access to local water quality, one text message away. We started this project thinking about the community first,” said Brown, a computer science and political science major who’s minoring in environmental design. “We wanted to address that social equity issue that there is a digital divide in this nation and often the people who don’t have access to that need this service the most.”

Because the main platform is Short Message Service (SMS) based — SMS is the techy phrase for text messaging — and not an app that has to be downloaded, WaterWatcher doesn’t require a data plan.

“It’s a lot easier to implement SMS than it is to get apps in a million people’s hands. I think the reason we’re here is because we took the approach of going the route of texting instead of creating just another app,” added Sansbury, a computer science major.

The inspiration for WaterWatcher as a text-based tool came from the University Heights Tool Library, for which Brown has volunteered. The Tool Library used SMS to communicate with volunteers during its recent ReTree the District project.

“I think we can contribute our success back to our founding vision that it’s about the community, not creating an app, and I think this can be used to create something positive, especially in the neighborhoods that need it most. SMS is a really flexible solution,” Brown said.

WaterWatcher plans to partner with the Buffalo Water Authority, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper and other environmental organizations in Western New York to promote awareness of water quality issues and encourage the sharing of open data.

Here’s a look at the three other Buffalo area quarterfinal winners that will join WaterWatcher in Detroit:

Second place – Orbitist

Orbitist was developed by SUNY Fredonia graduate Nicholas Gunner, who drew upon his expertise as a digital storyteller to create a company that uses multimedia production, data visualization and web development to help people understand and explore the world. Orbitist aims to help engineering firms, governments, cities and citizens communicate and engage with the general public around water and local environmental issues.

“We’ve come up with a solution for streamlining water communication and making it more affordable,” Gunner said of Orbitist.

The most exciting part of Orbitist, he said, is a crowdsourcing application. “You can think of it as the Pokemon Go for water issues,” Gunner said. “This app makes data collection fun. It gamifies it and it truly engages the public.”

Third place – WaterX

UB students Duy Vo (management) and MD Chowdhury (computer engineering) developed WaterX to collect meaningful data through an interactive app that also provides real-time water contamination information.

Users simply open the app and select their water provider. The app will then display the level of contaminants in the water and the health effects of those contaminants. The app also allows users to send in complaints about water quality. “A typical water report in New York State is convoluted, complex and clunky, whereas our application aims to make it more accessible to users,” Vo explained.

Fourth place – ExtremeComms Lab

ExtremeComms Lab is a sponsored research lab in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Department of Electrical Engineering that aims to use underwater WiFi for early detection of harmful algae blooms.

“Our solution is, instead of using one sensor, use multiple sensors that can cooperate and communicate with each other, therefore creating a network that can communicate under the water surface,” said George Sklivanitis, whose team members include UB students Konstantinos Tountas, Nan Zhang, Sarankumar Balakrishnan and Song-Wen Huang.

“This will create better early warning and mitigation systems for algae blooms,” Sklivanitis added.

ExtremeComms Labs plans to use its underwater WiFi network to cover 10 square kilometers of Lake Erie within the next three years.

The judges’ panel included James Jensen, UB professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering; E. Frits Abell, COO of Green Machine; Joel Bernosky, program manager for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper; Darran Crabtree, director of conservation programs for The Nature Conservancy; and Nate Drag, water project manager for the Alliance for the Great Lakes.