Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Big problems call for big data: reporting back from the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium

CUAHSI recently hosted its Biennial Colloquium at the National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. This year’s symposium focused around the theme of “Finding your place in big data: using observations to understand hydrologic processes for predicting a changing world.” More on that in a moment, but first: CUAHSI.

What is CUAHSI?
CUAHSI stands for Consortium of Universities for the Advancement of Hydrologic Sciences, Inc. CUAHSI is funded by NSF, governed by a community of expert water resource scientists and researchers, and serves as a collective voice for over 100 universities and organizations on subjects related to water science. Generally speaking, CUAHSI aims to support the advancement of water science in the United States. This goal is operationalized through workshops, conferences, the coordination of initiatives that assist water researchers (i.e., HydroClient and Hydroshare, which simplify data download and sharing), and more.

CUAHSI’s Biennial Colloquium
The Biennial Colloquium aims to host an event with content that lands between “super specialized and only for a select group of experts” and “broadly appealing to all environmental/biosystems scientists and engineers.” This year’s program addressed all things “big data” within the context of water science – big compute, large-scale modeling, tools and sensors that collect loads of data, and case studies of big data analyses – by including a variety of talks by distinguished lecturers, concurrent sessions on specialized topics, workshops, water-related field trips, and a poster symposium.

Students setting up for the poster symposium at the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium
Rather than detail all of the interesting experiences had over the few days of the colloquium, I’ll focus on two workshops that I participated in: (1) Do-It-Yourself, Open-Source Wireless Environmental Data Logging, and (2) CUAHSI Data-Driven Education.

EnviroDIY Mayfly: fun, open-source, inexpensive, wireless environmental monitoring
At the “Do-It-Yourself, Open-Source Wireless Environmental Data Logging” workshop, my geekiness reigned as I tinkered with the Arduino-based EnviroDIY Mayfly data logger. The workshop was directed by the brains behind the Mayfly, Steve Hicks (Research Engineer) and Dr. Anthony Aufdenkampe (Associate Research Scientist) of the Stroud Water Research Center. The Mayfly was born from the desire to create an extensive network of sensors that monitored various environmental variables, but on a tight budget. The EnviroDIY Mayfly logger board is based on Arduino, an open-source platform that uses simple and user-friendly hardware and software to translate inputs (i.e., a digital signal, button push, sensor trigger, or even a Twitter message!) into useful information based on user-programmed instructions.

At first glance, the Mayfly looks like a simple circuit board with a few additional components. These components include an atomic clock, microSD memory card slot, several input pins (i.e., 8-bit Analog-to-Digital, 16-bit ADC), microUSB port, Bee socket (allows for wireless capability), and solar panel connector. For a full list of Mayfly features, check out their website. All of these components allow for data to be collected from several solar- or battery-powered sensors, and logged on the microSD card that the user has plugged into the Mayfly. Users program the Mayfly using open-source software that is both Mac OS X and Windows compatible. The code is easy to write, and the creators of the Mayfly have created an online community called EnviroDIY that includes blog posts and forums on all things open-source + environmental monitoring. On this website, Mayfly users can download and contribute other open-source codes, making this technology very accessible for those of us who lack experience in Arduino. Have I convinced you that it’s awesome yet? If not, maybe the price will: you can buy a complete EnviroDIY Mayfly loggerstarter kit on Amazon for $90.

The Mayfly data logger and relevant accessories for implementation in environmental monitoring hardware systems. Images from envirodiy.org.

Teaching Hydrology with Data
The second workshop I attended focused on Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education. Participants were asked to create a data-driven hydrology assignment prior to attending the workshop. These assignments were then contributed to the Science Education Resource Center (SERC), which is a NSF-funded venture with the mission of improving "education in the Earth sciences and beyond." The SERC website includes several different modules with user-contributed earth science assignments that target K12 through higher education students, making this online platform a wonderful resource for any and all educators working in natural sciences and engineering. If you ever find yourself needing to create an educational exercise, save yourself some time and check out the brilliant assignments on SERC!

The SERC webpage on Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education created in collaboration with CUAHSI.

CUAHSI researchers successfully received funding to create a module within SERC that includes problem sets for training the next generation of water scientists and engineers. I created and submitted an assignment on dissolved oxygen (DO) trends in the Lower St. Johns River. For this exercise, students download data from three locations along the Lower St. Johns (estuarine, transitional, upstream), and evaluate how the combination of hydrology and system biology produce distinct DO behavior at each of these three river reaches. Data are downloaded with CUAHSI’s HydroClient and evaluated using a Python-enabled Jupyter notebook that I created specifically for this assignment. If you’re interested in including this assignment as part of your curriculum, check out the assignment’s webpage and/or reach out to me! I’m happy to help implement the assignment, or directly teach it to your class. There are also other fantastic assignments included on the Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education webpage that I’m sure you will find useful and/or inspiring.

Snapshot of the Jupyter notebook created as part of a Data and Model Driven Hydrology Education assignment.

All in all, I found that the CUAHSI Biennial Colloquium provided several unique learning experiences, and opportunities for interactions with leaders in the field of hydrology. Whether you’re a student like me, or an experienced water professional, you should strongly consider venturing to the wilds of West Virginia to participate in this conference in 2018! If you don’t want to wait that long, there will also be a Hydroinformatics conference coming up in July of 2017 in Logan, UT. Hope to see you there!

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