Campus News

UB teams advance to ErieHack finals

participants write down their ideas on post-it notes at the Buffalo ErieHack ideation session held in February.

Participants at the initial Buffalo ErieHack ideation session held in February write down on Post-it notes their ideas about issues affecting the future of Lake Erie. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published May 2, 2017

“The objective of the competition is to inspire students to create innovative solutions that solve Lake Erie’s greatest issues, such as harmful nutrient loading and reducing urban pollution.”
Isabel Hall, UB student coordinator

Two UB student teams have advanced to the finals of ErieHack, a tech-based, Lake Erie-themed competition that will award $100,000 in prizes when winners are announced May 3.

The UB student teams are WaterWatcher and ExtremeComms Lab. A third Buffalo team, called Orbitist and headed by a SUNY Fredonia State graduate, also advanced. The three teams will pitch their ideas May 3 at the ErieHack finals in Cleveland. The event coincides with a two-day water innovation summit.

The Buffalo teams will compete against seven other finalists from Cleveland, Detroit, Erie, Toledo and Windsor. A panel of experts will select the $50,000 grand-prize winner and three additional winners who will receive prizes ranging from $25,000 to $6,500.

The ErieHack finals will take place on day two of the water innovation summit. Each team will present its final software, applications and/or engineered solutions to “hack” Lake Erie.

“The objective of the competition is to inspire students to create innovative solutions that solve Lake Erie’s greatest issues, such as harmful nutrient loading and reducing urban pollution,” says Isabel Hall, a sophomore environmental engineering major who has served as student coordinator for UB’s involvement with the competition.

“I think the most important thing about ErieHack, and perhaps my favorite, is that the competition is intended to attract a diverse group of ‘hackers’ — engineering students, app developers, water experts, communications students, business students, you name it,” says Hall, who will attend the finals.

Regional competitions were held in each participating city in early April. The semifinals were held April 13 in Detroit.

Representing Buffalo at the ErieHack finals are Extreme Comms Lab, WaterWatcher and Orbitist. Hall says she’s looking forward to seeing how the Buffalo teams fare in the finals. “Each team has had awesome, creative ideas that I hope to see develop and implemented, regardless of how they place in the final. The ideas that have been generated from this competition really show participants, and the surrounding community, that technology can be an excellent solution to bring prosperity to Lake Erie,” she says.

Here are brief descriptions of each project.

Extreme Comms Lab

Almost 95 percent of the underwater world still remains unexplored. Limited transmission speeds and lack of underwater mobility hamper accurate scientific modeling of the range of biological, chemical and physical phenomena that occur in environments like Lake Erie.

Extreme Comms Lab is working to leverage an innovative method of acoustic communication to create a network of aquatic sensors that can quickly transmit information long distances under water. This communications method can interface with a broad range of sensors and enables autonomous cooperation between units.

The project’s team members expect Extreme Comms Lab to yield wide commercial and societal impact in the form of early-warning pollution detection, real-time water-quality monitoring and measurement/tracking of urban pollution.

Team members include George Sklivanitis, Konstantinos Tountas, Nan Zhang, Sarankumar Balakrishnan and Song-Wen Huang.


WaterWatcher is an SMS-based service that bridges the digital divide by empowering vulnerable communities to check the safety of their water, report problems to the authorities and request water testing without need for smartphones, Internet access or data plans.

The text message-based approach not only saves costs, but also avoids the growing trend of app fatigue. Water utility companies can use WaterWatcher to transform their service by allowing customers to track their usage and even be notified about possible leaks. With integration opportunities for apps like Facebook Messenger and a capacity to easily scale both up and down cost-efficiently, WaterWatcher delivers the most flexible and effective water communication solution for any community.

Team members are Michael Brown and Morgan Sansbury.


Orbitist creator and SUNY Fredonia graduate Nicholas Gunner believes the biggest issue surrounding water today is a lack of effective environmental communication. By reaching the source of water problems (human beings), all other water-related issues will be mitigated in time.

Orbitist addresses this root cause by using a streamlined method for water communication that integrates video production, data visualization and a flexible crowd sourcing data application to tell the story of water. Their ultimate goal is to blend citizen science with pre-existing hobbies like kayaking, fishing and hiking, adding new layers of meaning to these activities and engaging new audiences in the process.

ErieHack is a program of the Cleveland Water Alliance. Local support has been provided by UB Sustainability and the Blackstone LaunchPad program at UB, along with the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.