Hacking Away at Lake Erie Problems

Paul Riser
TechTown Detroit
June 12, 2017
map of cities participating in Lake Erie hack

Not all hacking is bad. One of several Great Lakes regional efforts to find solutions to Lake Erie’s biggest problems took home two top awards at an Erie Hack Innovation Summit.

Erie Hack, “Innovate Around the Lake,” was a data and engineering competition uniting coders, developers, engineers, and water experts from Ontario and five US cities to generate enduring solutions to Lake Erie challenges, including harmful algal blooms.

Erie Hack included teams ranging from high-school students to seasoned professionals. The teams were charged with creating innovative digital tools, hardware innovations, and engineering solutions that build “the Blue Economy”: the emergent economic sector dedicated to the sustainable stewardship of bodies of freshwater around the globe.

In Michigan, Erie Hack Detroit began in the fall of 2016 by hosting a session of experts led by the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a web-based public portal that allowed the community to prioritize focus issue areas concerning the health of the Lake Erie basin. ­

From November through February, TechTown Detroit (and stakeholders in Buffalo, New York; Cleveland, Ohio; Erie, Pennsylvania; Toledo, Ohio; and Windsor, Ontario) engaged communities of software experts, hardware developers, designers, and entrepreneurs in their respective geographies. TechTown Detroit worked closely with Wayne State leadership who led efforts to leverage the energy of students, researchers, other Michigan academic institutions, and concerned citizens.

erie hack map
A map of teams in participating cities. Credit: Erie Hack

In the first week of March, the target groups initiated the Detroit Water Innovation Hackathon, hosted by the Detroit partnership and coordinated by the Cleveland Water Alliance. After local quarter-final rounds were held in each city, the Detroit-based partnership hosted another event as the winners of regional 2017 Water Innovation Hackathons came to Detroit in April to compete in an Erie Hack 2017 Semi-Final.  A panel of experts selected eight teams to advance to Cleveland for a May 2-3 Erie Hack Innovation Summit.

Four winning teams took home $100,000 in cash and prizes for their concepts.

The $40,000 cash grand-prize winner was Micro Buoy, a team from Wayne State University in Detroit. Its creation is a nano-sensor, contained in a buoy, that can detect environmental contaminants and help find pathogens in water. In addition, the team will receive more than $10,000 in support services to help commercialize its sensor. Other winners were:

  • Second place: ExtremeComms Lab at the University of Buffalo, for an underwater wifi network to help detect toxic algae blooms and tsunamis.
  • Third place: Water Warriors at the University of Akron, for water testing kits that use light-filtering spectrometers to detect phosphorus and nitrogen in a lake.
  • Fourth place: Purily at the University of Michigan, which developed a system for people to track water usage in their homes and win prizes, such as restaurant coupons, for meeting conservation goals.
erie hack first fourth teams
Members of the first- and fourth-place teams. Credit: TechTown Detroit

The four top teams presented innovative solutions to Challenge Statements derived from the Cleveland Water Alliance (a network of corporations, academic institutions, and public agencies in Northeast Ohio) and partners in each of the six participating cities. Over the course of multiple months and ultimately at the May 2-3 Erie Hack finals, teams worked to solve problems such as nutrient loading and its environmental impacts, reducing urban pollution and managing aging water infrastructure systems.

In the future, Erie Hack Detroit hopes to play a critical role in a regional strategy to transform the quality of Lake Erie while building the base of a stable, water-centered economy for its inhabitants.

For more information on Erie Hack, see eriehack.io

Paul Riser
TechTown Detroit