Can private sector, sensors, innovation save our waterways?

Environmentalism has become detached from innovation and that’s killing our waterways unless we use technology to bolster real-time monitoring.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor on

Cross posted on Smart Planet.

Environmentalism has become detached from innovation and that’s killing our waterways unless we use technology to bolster real-time monitoring.

That was the message of John Cronin, CEO of Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries. Speaking at the IBM blogger day in Armonk, Cronin outlined how the Hudson River in New York has become a great big technology project. The idea: IBM and Beacon, which is developing technology, systems and sensors to monitor water in real-time, aim to create the equivalent of a water weather report.

At any time, Beacon will be able to monitor pollution flows, water changes, barometric pressure and other data. Next up is the innovation needed to deploy these systems and replicate elsewhere. “I can tell you the weather and barometric pressure anyplace in the world. Can you tell you what’s in drinking water now (and) where fish are? We don’t have information yet,” said Cronin.

Cronin’s challenge is managing that data. Beacon is looking to IBM to help manage streaming data and sort out the important stuff. Beacon and IBM are working on streaming analytics.

The aim is to make the Hudson the most networked waterway in the world with real-time data management and transmission data. Today, this information just isn’t available despite water pollution’s impact on health, the environment, business and recreation.  “If you don’t know where the pollution is in real time you can’t manage and can’t improve,” said Cronin. The key quote:

"The Hudson isn't an ecosystem. It's an information system. If we don't look at it in a 21st century fashion we're doomed."

Cronin said Beacon contacted the government about helping with the Gulf spill. Beacon’s plan to build 25 monitoring stations in four weeks was shot down. Cronin didn’t gripe about the rejection, but did note the government is incapable of sorting out snake oil salesmen from real innovation.

The major point from Cronin, an environmental activist, is that the regulatory model from the government is broken. “Innovation has passed it by,” he said. Regulators aren’t equipped to innovate to better the environment.

So what’s going to get the world out of its water pickle? Technology innovation and the private sector. Cronin said fixing water will need “a massive investment in technology, pollutant treatment and real-time monitoring.”

The only entity with the resources to pull that monitoring off is business. “The biggest challenge to corporate expansion is the lack of water,” he said.

He pointed to Anheuser-Busch, Motorola, IBM and Cadbury Schweppes as companies that are focused on water conservation.

It’s an interesting point indeed.

Other points from Cronin:

  • GE is an emerging partner and has real-time sensor technology from its PCB cleanup.
  • The Hudson project---if Beacon and IBM pull it off---will create a water marketplace where other waterways will follow. However, operational and maintenance costs are large.
  • The timeline for a networked Hudson is hard to estimate. "The most difficult part of the project is maintenance," said Cronin.

Editorial standards