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From Supercomputers to Salamanders, "Hack our Springs" Event Helps Preserve Central Texas Environment

Published on March 9, 2017 by Aaron Dubrow

More than 40 scientists, students, educators, government officials and computer experts converged at TACC to unlock data related to the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer, which provides drinking water to more than 60,000 Central Texas residents.

More than 60,000 people depend on the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards Aquifer as their primary source of drinking water.

It is an important water resource for the people of Central Texas. It is also one of the most well-studied groundwater systems in the U.S. with a wide range of data and scientific information that contribute to official decisions, from protecting endangered species and triggering drought conditions to protecting the drinking water supply.

However, accessing that data is not always easy.

"Many of the things that influence the springs are measured, but a lot of times those data stay in a scientific format, they're not easily discoverable by the public or easily usable by well owners," says Robin Gary, senior public information and education coordinator for the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District (BSEACD).

The "Hack Our Springs" event tapped into vast, hidden Texas groundwater datasets and made them more user-friendly.

To make the data more accessible, more connected and more useful, BSEACD teamed up with the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) and the Hill Country Alliance to host the first Barton Springs Hackathon on March 3, 2017.

More than 40 scientists, students, educators, government officials and computer experts converged at TACC to help unlock the information related to monitoring wells, creek flow stations, and precipitation.

The teams used data from a variety of sources, including Lower Colorado River Authority streamflow and precipitation data; monitor well data from the U.S. Geological Survey and BSEACD; and well driller's reports and groundwater data submitted to the Texas Water Development Board.

Participants divided into four project teams, each addressing a specific "data challenge," and developed ideas and began working on tools to further the overall goal of accessibility and usefulness.

  • The Data Consumption, Raw Data Processing team started developing scripts that ingest basic data that BSEACD collects from sensors. They also created a Virtual Machine that can process the data in a powerful compute environment.
  • The Web Portal team worked on connecting to the Texas Water Development Board's well data to create an online tool that would summarize nearby well depths and common water quality results for a selected given location.
  • The Analytics and Visualization team started work on a dynamic view of the water cycle based on actual data and began processing that data to show water level fluctuations over time.
  • The Education team brainstormed the best ways to engage students in school environments and teach them about wells and aquifer systems using dynamic data, storytelling, and immersive environments, such as 3-D scans of real caves in the region.

Interactive image of a 3D scan from a cave in Central Texas was collected by students at The University of Texas at Austin and provides a digital resource that can be used to create an immersive environment and tool for teaching Texas students about groundwater systems.

Solutions to each team's challenges could have far-reaching benefits to groundwater conservation districts and groundwater-related organizations across the state.

"Each of the teams created initial proof-of-concept outputs that synergistically seemed to fit together to form the beginning of a possible data ecosystem for a groundwater conservation district," says Suzanne Pierce, a research scientist at TACC and one of the event organizers. "The sponsoring organizations were thrilled. We look forward to working together to extend the team projects at future hackathon events and hope to collect information about data needs from other groundwater conservation districts around the state with the Texas Alliance of Groundwater Districts, which encompasses more than 82 conservation district members."

The event succeeded in building a network: both of individuals who care about and can help with groundwater conservation, and of information that can be used to preserve a critical resource for the region.

"We are a group of hydrogeologists and geographers. We're not coders. We don't have big data solutions," says Gary, who co-organized the event. "The experts here at TACC have big data solutions, but they're not hydrogeologists or geographers necessarily. Putting the two together creates an environment where there's the context and skills to get this data out to a wider audience and make it more discoverable."


Contact

Faith Singer-Villalobos

Communications Manager
faith@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-232-5771

Aaron Dubrow

Science And Technology Writer
aarondubrow@tacc.utexas.edu

Jorge Salazar

Technical Writer/Editor
jorge@tacc.utexas.edu | 512-475-9411