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Hacking Lake Erie: Tech Competition Seeks Solutions To Water-Related Problems


Aquahacking is a term for finding tech-based solutions for water-related problems. Imagine if a smartphone app could help prevent a toxic algae bloom. The idea of aquahacking comes from Canada and Europe but it's now making its way to the U.S. and Lake Erie. Elizabeth Miller of WCPN ideastream explains.

ELIZABETH MILLER, BYLINE: For many people, the word hacking has a pretty bad reputation. But in the tech world, hacking conferences are happening all the time. They're usually weekend-long competitions aimed at finding new ways to treat diseases or address social ills. Lake Erie has environmental issues decades old. There's legacy pollution, aging water infrastructure and harmful algae growth spurred by fertilizer runoff.

Even though it's the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie provides drinking water for about 11 million people. It borders four states and one Canadian province. Erie Hack is a months-long competition focused on finding solutions. It's the first time a Great Lake has ever been hacked. And the contest included teams from six cities around the lake. Bryan Stubbs heads the Cleveland Water Alliance, the organization hosting Erie Hack.

BRYAN STUBBS: This is not a traditional hackathon. It's not a 24 or 48-hour event. Water's so complex that it requires more time and more efforts.

MILLER: Nine finalists will compete in Cleveland next week for a grand prize - $40,000 plus $10,000 in consulting services. One of the competing teams calls itself Water Warriors. They're all scientists from the University of Akron with backgrounds in chemistry, engineering, biomimicry and polymer science.

In a campus lab, Adam Smith of the Water Warriors test their tool - a spectrometer that will measure nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen which can lead to harmful algae blooms.

ADAM SMITH: It started as a way to design an inexpensive laboratory instrument. This is a spectrometer that you would use to measure chemical concentrations.

MILLER: The project is geared toward students. And each classroom kit would cost around $50. Smith says it's really simple to use.

SMITH: They'll go to the link. We'll give them a little test tube. The test tube will be in the kit. They'll go to the lake, grab lake water. There's a little dropper. We have to add some chemicals to it because you can't see the chemical we're trying to test.

MILLER: The sample is then placed in a spectrometer, a visual device that splits light into separate colors.

SMITH: As light passes through something with color, some of the light's absorbed, then we get the concentration.

MILLER: That's the concentration of phosphorus or nitrogen. Students take a picture of the spectrometer with their phone and post it on the Water Warriors website, a key step in building a water sample database. Team member Banafsheh Khakipoor says this kind of data is usually collected by researchers or organizations.

BANAFSHEH KHAKIPOOR: Here we want to give this power, like, to the communities. They're doing the measurements, so it's their own measurements. And they will be able to say, OK, I know what's happening based on my own data.

MILLER: Other Eerie Hack finalist ideas include an app that doles out discounts for low water usage and a drone that can collect harmful algae. Bryan Stubbs says there's been a renewed interest in the Great Lakes.

Stubbs says extra funding will make sure several Eerie Hack teams continue beyond the final competition even if they don't win the grand prize. Team Water Warriors is already in talks to test its kit at park systems and programs across the state. For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Miller in Cleveland.

CORNISH: That story came to us from the public radio station collaboration Great Lakes Today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROJECT SANDRO'S "BLAZER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elizabeth Miller is a student at Baldwin Wallace University in Berea, Ohio, with a major in broadcasting. Elizabeth is still exploring her options for the future, but would most enjoy pursuing a career that lets her talk to someone different everyday. She loves a good concert.

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