Published March 3, 2017
As the waves crashed over the break wall in the distance and waterfowl swirled about in search of prey, UB sophomore Mark Geraci chatted with a local dairy farmer seated next to him inside the Buffalo Yacht Club about issues affecting the future of Lake Erie.
Theirs was a conversation that doesn’t often happen. And that’s exactly the point of a tech-driven water-innovation competition and accelerator program being offered in major cities around this Great Lake.
It’s called ErieHack, and the idea is to bring together coders, developers, engineers and water experts to generate creative solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest challenges.
“One of the most significant things this project does is it brings people together who weren’t previously in the same room talking to each other,” said Max Herzog, program coordinator with the Cleveland Water Alliance, the organization managing the event along with funders from across Lake Erie’s major metropolitan areas.
“It brings together the nonprofit, academic and techie sectors to talk about water in a new way. That’s our goal as an organization, to create and facilitate those conversations and create that ecosystem where all these resources are being aligned around water technology,” Herzog added.
The competition will award $100,000 in cash and accelerator services to up to four winning teams and one high school team. It’s focused on creating publicly accessible mobile apps, open data and new technology and solutions to elevate the value of clean water and leverage its potential to drive the economic vitality of the Great Lakes region.
ErieHack is comprised of several events, including ideation sessions and hackathon team meetings, over the next several months across Buffalo, Detroit, Toledo, Cleveland and Windsor, Ontario. It culminates May 2-3 with a Water Innovation Summit in Cleveland, during which the winning teams will be announced.
Buffalo ErieHack participants recently held their ideation session, facilitated by Cleveland’s NASA Glenn Research Center, at the Buffalo Yacht Club. The session was attended by a diverse group of more than two dozen stakeholders that included several UB faculty, staff and students, along with representatives from area community and environmental organizations, entrepreneurs, government officials and others who were all interested in working toward a sustainable future for Lake Erie.
“I came to this hoping to learn about issues and solutions that I’ve never heard of, and that’s definitely happened. The dairy farmer I talked with is worried about oversaturation of nitrogens in the water supply, something I’ve never heard of before,” said Geraci, a mechanical engineering major and member of the UB chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World.
Helen Domske, associate director of the Great Lakes Program at UB, liked the discussions she heard during the ideation session. “I was glad to hear that people are concerned about public access and social justice issues related to Lake Erie, and not just biological or ecological concerns,” she said. “If even one of the suggestions can be utilized to help create a change or action that benefits Lake Erie, the ErieHack event can make a real difference.”
Participants worked in teams to draft six challenge statements:
The final list of challenge statements — selected from among each participating region and which hackathon teams will be asked to respond to — will be unveiled Feb. 23 when the hackathon portion kicks off. UB is hosting an information session at the South Lake Community Center on the North Campus from 2-5 p.m. Feb. 28.
Sean Burkholder, assistant professor of landscape and urban design in UB’s School of Architecture and Planning whose research centers on issues characteristic of the Great Lakes region, also sees the potential ErieHack could have. “It’s important because it provides an opportunity to consider the regional implications of the Great Lakes, which is seldom done,” he said.
There’s also the potential to engage industry in the discussion, which is critical, Burkholder said. “The manufacturing sector is really important. Without them, many of the discussions seem to point the blame at our industrial heritage as the cause of problems, rather than seeing them as possible allies in addressing the issues.”
Funding for the Buffalo portion of ErieHack is being provided by the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, with additional support from the Blackstone LaunchPad program at UB and UB Sustainability.
Blackstone LaunchPad is happy to be a partner in ErieHack, said program director Hadar Borden. “ErieHack affords us an opportunity to cast our net wide to engage problem solvers that don’t typically identify themselves as entrepreneurs and support them to develop their ideas as change agents in the community,” she said.
Added Ryan McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer: “We are excited to partner across the Erie Basin to find innovative and technological solutions that will help protect and regenerate one of the most important ecosystems in the world — the Great Lakes. By integrating entrepreneurship, creativity, technology and nature, the university and our external partners are exploring new strategies to protect this beautiful resource and fresh water system.”