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Data science interns tackle Cape Town water crisis

Cape Town’s Day Zero for running out of water may have been postponed for 2018, but for interns at the Explore Data Science Academy (EDSA) in the city, their project was an opportunity to take existing data and derive fresh insights into the City’s water crisis.  

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The question posed to the students was: “What are the supply and demand factors affecting the Cape Town water crisis?

Using publicly available data, they showed that the blame cannot be attributed to any single cause, but that multiple factors in varying degrees each contributed to the water crunch.

The students concluded that a combination of low rainfall, population growth, shifting consumption levels as well as evaporation, were all factors affecting the City’s critical dam levels.

The project was the first to be set by the Academy, and was handed to the first intake of 100 students on their first day at the Academy in January this year. They were given two months to work on the problem, with the EDSA supporting them with the necessary skills to tackle the problem.

“In essence, data science is about taking real world problems and finding real world solutions,” said Aidan Helmbold, co-founder of the EDSA.

“The water project required our interns to make use of various available data sets and technology to analyse the City’s water consumption, and to make these insights available so that the City could better understand the underlying dynamics,” Helmbold added.

Students had to analyse the main supply and demand factors affecting the water crisis.  Demand side factors were drawn from water consumption data available on the City of Cape Town’s Open Data portal.

On the supply side, factors such as dam levels, and the impact of weather data, such as rainfall, temperature and windfall patterns on water evaporation, were considered.

Analysis of water demand also took into consideration population figures from the 2011 census, the impact of water leaks as well as usage from sources other than households, such as industries and farms.

“I think the most astounding aspect for us as education providers was to see how much 100 young minds can achieve with only three months of data science training behind them,” Helmbold said.

“We were also amazed at how quickly the students were able to adapt to the softer skills, such as teamwork and the realities of managing multiple project deliverables.”

“Many of these young people come from very humble circumstances and have only a matric to their name. Yet they have demonstrated through the project, their ability to get to grips with complex problems and to come up with life-ready solutions to them. ”

The EDSA will present the data finds to City of Cape Town officials early in June.

“Ideally, the EDSA would like to partner with the city to contribute to deepening the understanding of the role of data and the value its insights can bring to the decision making process,” Helmbold said.

CoCT and CiTi’s #newnormal – Cape Town Water Saving Design Sprint

In a separate but related endeavour, the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTI) together with the City of Cape Town, recently held a weekend-long hackathon to come up with solutions that would engage and encourage Capetonians to continue to save water and remain conscious of their water habits.

In order to address this challenge, a two-day design sprint was held at the Woodstock Bandwidth Barn. Participants were given the challenge to ‘Design a digital campaign, tool, game or app which will help make water-saving the new normal’.

Drawing on the City’s Open Data portal, this event challenged teams to come up with ideas on how to use technology to motivate long-term behavioural change regarding water saving and to propose solutions that were relevant to the wider community.  Participants were also briefed by Green Cape and behavioural design professionals.

The aim of the user-centred design hackathon was to bring together people from diverse backgrounds, experiences and skill sets.  About 60 members of the public including 30 of the EDSA’s interns were involved in the design sprint.

The weekend-long event was facilitated by experienced design thinking professionals who took teams through a structured process.

“This allowed people to participate in the event without already having a solution in mind, focusing rather on getting teams to understand the problem from a user perspective first,” said Michelle Matthews, Head of Innovation at CiTi.

This user-centred approach included having participants’ interview members of the public, to help participants propose solutions, which citizens might actually need and adopt.

One of the EDSA teams came up with an idea for a Sims-like game that tracked an individual’s water consumption rates, rewarding them with points for saving water and connecting them with others with similar household set-ups to benchmark usage and share tips.  This team eventually came third in the event.

“We were delighted by the calibre of solutions that the teams demonstrated, which had the potential to be applied to one of the biggest issues facing the city,” Matthews said.

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