Enabling the free flow of water data

D. P. Ames
David G. Tarboton, Utah State University



In April 2011, I (Daniel Ames), attended the first OpenWater Symposium at the UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education in The Netherlands to present the MapWindow GIS software and some water-related plugins. Although other meetings, including AWRA specialty conferences, had previously held sessions on open source software tools in the water domain, the UNESCO-IHE meeting was the first international gathering completely dedicated to the topic of free and open source models, data management tools, and systems for working with water data. It was an exciting meeting with presentations and workshops on several innovative open software tools. At the end of the meeting, one of my European colleagues pulled me aside and said something along these lines: “You Americans don’t know how lucky you are. You have so much freely available data. Here in Europe, we pay for data three times. First we pay the government through our taxes to collect the data. Then we pay the government again to get a copy of the data to use in our research. Finally, we pay again if we want to reproduce someone else’s research results.” This conversation made me appreciate the immense amount of freely available water data we have in the United States (U.S.). At the same time, sheer volumes of data are meaningless if they can’t be searched, retrieved, and used efficiently. To their credit, the Europeans are making progress on open data sharing through policies such as the European Union Water Framework Directive. In the U.S., the Open Water Data Initiative (http://acwi.gov/spatial/ owdi/) continues our tradition of supporting freely available water information. As these open data policies advance, here and abroad, we can expect a “flood” of new climate and water data to become available for use in water research and management. This increased data availability, in turn, creates a greater need for international standards for passing data between models, databases, and other software tools. Without such standards, water data tools risk becoming stove-piped into specific “software stacks” that are able to communicate with each other but not with other programs that exist outside the stack (consider the Android versus iPhone software ecosystems). This need for interoperability between machines, is anticipated in the U.S. presidential executive order on open data, entitled “Making Open and Machine Readable the New Default for Government Information” (Obama, 2013). Making data “machine readable” will ensure that the coming water data deluge can be met with equally powerful software tools. In the remainder of this article, we present three important developments in open water standards and software that will help us rise to the water data challenge.