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Taking on Lake Erie’s Algae Monster: A look inside AquaHacking 2017

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

AquaHacking 2017 has officially kicked off at the University of Waterloo. Bringing together water experts, engineers, digital designers and entrepreneurs, this multi-stage hackathon encourages creative minds to work together to develop technology that will positively impact Lake Erie.

With prizes like $25,000 in cash, a meeting with a venture capitalist, media coverage, and access to local accelerators, it’s no surprise that over 150 individuals have signed up to compete in this challenge. One of these individuals is Jason Deglint, who is tackling Lake Erie’s algae problem from a systems design engineering perspective.

Applying systems designs to the Great Lakes

Jason DeglintJason is a PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, and an entrepreneur at heart. His research interests are varied, and include topics such as biomedical imaging, computer vision, and remote sensing. He currently works with the Vision and Image Processing Research Group supervised by Alexander Wong, a Water Institute member and associate professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering.

Water wasn’t always a focus for Jason when it came to engineering. It actually wasn’t until he met Chao Jin, a Water Institute member and research assistant professor in the Department of Systems Design Engineering, that Jason began thinking about how his research could be applied to the water sector.

“I wanted to solve real-world problems – not theoretical ones – and water is a big problem,” said Jason. “Water affects everyone and it’s something we need to tackle.”

Jason Deglint_AquaHackingIn September of 2016, Jason decided to shift the focus of his research to water, specifically on topics associated with algae blooms. He began building a cost-effective portable system that could be used to automatically capture water samples, classify and enumerate different species of cyanobacteria in the water by using artificial intelligence in the decision making process. When he found out about AquaHacking, and the algae crisis that’s facing Lake Erie, he jumped at the opportunity to apply his research to help our Great Lakes.

“Lake Erie is the source of drinking water for over 11 million people in Canada and the United States, and it’s facing a huge algae and cyanobacteria problem,” said Jason. “If I can contribute by building a monitoring device that can be used to quantify the water characteristics in the natural systems such as Lake Erie, then we’re one step closer to protecting the environment and communities affected by this.”

Phosphorus runoff, primarily from agricultural lands, is feeding the volatile cyanobacterial growth in Lake Erie. This type of phosphorus pollution is detrimental to the health of our Great Lake, and of the communities that depend on it. The technology that Jason and his team are developing will help water experts monitor and study the algae and cyanobacteria in the waters of the western basin so they can fine-tune treatment to tackle specific cyanobacteria species rather than apply a blanket treatment for all.

“This type of technology will be integrated with an artificial intelligent system which will give us early warning signs if the cyanobacteria in Lake Erie are increasing, allowing us to act before an entire bloom happens.”

Aglae Bloom Lake ErieAlgae are natural components of marine and fresh water ecosystems. The most commonly occurring groups of freshwater algae are diatoms, green algae, and blue-green algae – more correctly known as cyanobacteria.  Some cyanobacteria release toxins, commonly called “toxic algae” blooms, that have extremely harmful effects on humans and the environment.

Interdisciplinary water research

More and more we are seeing innovative, interdisciplinary research in the water sector. Engineers are working with economists, mathematicians, scientists and geographers to tackle global water issues. It’s no surprise that interdisciplinary collaboration is a key factor when tackling large-scale, impactful projects. Working collaboratively, with experts from a variety of different backgrounds, is a crucial component of AquaHacking 2017. Jason welcomes the interdisciplinary aspect, recognizing how his own expertise catalyzes this type of research.

“One person can’t solve everything – it’s foolish to think that way. One of the best things about my field is that it’s a methodology where you learn systems and design, and can apply that knowledge anywhere. Having these transferrable skills and being able to work in interdisciplinary teams is key to solving problems.”

Semi-Finals

The Semi-Finals for AquaHacking 2017 takes place on June 21, from 5-9 p.m. at Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). Teams will present their ideas to a panel of judges for a chance to compete in the finals on September 13, 2017.

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